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Obama admin was ill-prepared for Russian election meddling: Senate intel report

Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, told staff to hold off on any cyber retaliation options against Russia, the report said.
Image: A voter fills out a ballot at a Harlem community center in New York on Nov. 8, 2016.
A voter fills out a ballot at a Harlem community center in New York on Nov. 8, 2016.Andrew Kelly / Reuters file

The Obama administration was caught off guard by Russia's interference in the 2016 election and did not have options at the ready to retaliate over the meddling, resulting in a constrained and flawed response, according to a new report from the Senate Intelligence Committee issued Thursday.

The partially redacted report also said President Barack Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, told her staff to put on hold contingency plans for possible cyber retaliation against Russia over the interference. The administration’s decision to stand down had been previously reported.

The 54-page bipartisan report is the third installment of a five-part series by the committee examining the scale of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and follows three years of extensive investigation.

The report said the Obama administration was understandably concerned that a sharp public response to Russia’s meddling could have been interpreted in the U.S. as an attempt to tip the scales in favor of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. But the report also said the White House — faced with an unprecedented challenge — lacked a clear set of options and that its failure to share information inside the administration hampered its ability to respond.

Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, left, and chairman Senator Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, speak before the start of a hearing on worldwide threats in Washington on Feb. 13, 2018.
Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, left, and chairman Senator Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, speak before the start of a hearing on worldwide threats in Washington on Feb. 13, 2018.Zach Gibson / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The administration’s decision to treat cyber and geopolitical aspects of Russia’s effort as separate issues also may have prevented officials from grasping the full scale of the threat from Moscow, the report said.

"The Committee found that the U.S. Government was not well-postured to counter Russian election interference activity with a full range of readily-available policy options," the report said in its findings. "One aspect of the administration's response — high-level warnings of potential retaliation — may or may not have tempered Moscow's activity."

The Republican chairman of the committee, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, said the Obama White House "struggled to determine the appropriate response."

"Frozen by ‘paralysis of analysis,’ hamstrung by constraints both real and perceived, Obama officials debated courses of action without truly taking one," Burr said in a statement.

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said there "were many flaws with the U.S. response to the 2016 attack, but it's worth noting that many of those were due to problems with our own system — problems that can and should be corrected."

Warner said he was concerned that the country's deeply polarized politics made it difficult for the Obama team to respond in 2016 and could hamstring future administrations.

"All Americans, particularly those of us in government and public office, must work together to push back on foreign interference in our elections without regard for partisan advantage," Warner said.

The Obama White House’s caution was reinforced by the stance of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who opposed making a bipartisan statement about Russian interference before the election, according to the report, which corroborated previous accounts about the majority leader.

At a September 2016 briefing with members of Congress, McConnell and other Republicans "resisted the administration request that a bipartisan statement be made regarding Russia being responsible for interference activities," the report stated.

Lisa Monaco, then counter-terrorism adviser to President Obama, told the committee that McConnell told officials "your security people should be careful that you're not getting used."

She interpreted his comment as suggesting that the intelligence regarding Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 elections "was being inflated or used for partisan ends," the report said.

In its recommendations, the Senate Intelligence Committee said the U.S. government must prepare a range of options to respond to attempts at interference that could be carried out quickly, work with other countries to counter the threat and inform the American public promptly.

“Delaying the release of information allows inaccurate narratives to spread, which makes the task of informing the public significantly harder,” it said.

The bipartisan report warned that the president and other political figures would need to set aside partisan political interests when tackling the problem. “The President of the United States should take steps to separate himself or herself from political considerations when handling issues related to foreign influence operations,” it said.

The United States should take a leading role in drafting rules for cyber warfare in any international agreement, as Russia and China already were seeking to shape the cyber battlefield, the report said.

In a supplement to the report, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden criticized the Obama administration for not sharing information about the Russian interference with more members of Congress. The Obama White House briefed only the so-called Gang of Eight, which includes the leaders of each party in the Senate and the House and the chairs and ranking minority members on the Senate and House intelligence committees.

"Intelligence of this magnitude should have been briefed to the full congressional intelligence committees and to the committees' full complement of staff with its range of responsibilities and expertise," Wyden wrote.

"Instead, at a moment when the country's democracy was under direct attack and the administration was hoping for support from Congress, it refused to engage the congressional intelligence committees. How might things have turned out differently?"

After Russia's hack of the Democratic National Committee was discovered, Michael Daniel, the cyber security coordinator on Obama’s National Security Council staff, helped draw up a list of possible cyber retaliation options to push back against Moscow, according to the report.

But senior officials were concerned the list of options had been distributed too widely inside the government, and that they only wanted to see "defensive" options on the table, the report said.

“I think there was a concern on the part of the senior level at the White House that some of the discussions had gotten frankly over-broad, and too many people had been brought into those discussions, and so part of that work was to restrict, shrink down the number of people that were involved in developing the response options,” Daniel told the committee.

“I would say essentially we were told to focus on the defensive work and that we basically put other activities on hold,” Daniel said, according to the report.

The administration ended up focusing mainly on "protecting election infrastructure and castigating the Russians prior to the election, saving punitive responses until after Moscow's ability to affect the 2016 election had passed," the report stated.

The Obama administration issued at least five direct warnings to Russia over the interference, including one face-to-face conversation between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin in September 2016, according to the report.

Russia intelligence services interfered in the 2016 election through a social media disinformation campaign that backed then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and denigrated his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, and by a systemic hacking of staff and volunteers working on the Clinton campaign followed by the release of stolen documents, according to a previous report by the Senate intelligence committee.

While Obama imposed sanctions and other penalties on Russia after the November 2016 election, President Donald Trump has not taken an aggressive stance on the issue and even publicly rejected the intelligence community’s conclusion that Moscow engaged in a sweeping interference effort.

In hindsight, Washington should have issued a more precise warning to Russia over the whole episode, said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, who worked as deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council at the time of the Russian interference.

”In many ways it was a missed opportunity for the United States to be able to lay down clearly what the red lines were,” said Kendall-Taylor, now at the Center for a New American Security. “This really was the first time that the United States was tested like this, so it was in many ways uncharted territory. It was a learning process.”