Senate report says Obama officials were 'not well-postured' to respond to Russian hacking

Senate report says Obama officials were 'not well-postured' to respond to Russian hacking
© Stefani Reynolds

The Senate Intelligence Committee released a report Thursday that found that the U.S. government was “not well-postured” to counter Russia's election interference attempts in 2016, and strongly encouraged the Trump administration to take steps to prepare for future attempts.

The bipartisan report is the third volume released by the committee stemming from its three-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, and examines how the Obama administration responded to reports of Russian interference and how future administrations can improve on this response.

The committee found that the U.S. government did not have the policy options necessary to counter Russian interference in 2016. It also found that the Obama administration was partially constrained from responding to the hacking and disinformation by Russian actors due to the concern that warning of election interference would undermine the public’s confidence in elections. 

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“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 committee wrote in the report. “One aspect of the administration's response--high-level warnings of potential retaliation--may or may not have tempered Moscow's activity.”

The report concluded that the decision by the Obama administration to “limit and delay the information flow regarding the 2016 Russian active measures campaign, while understandable, inadvertently constrained the administration's ability to respond.”

The committee strongly urged President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump fires intelligence community inspector general who flagged Ukraine whistleblower complaint Trump organization has laid off over 1000 employees due to pandemic: report Trump invokes Defense Production Act to prevent export of surgical masks, gloves MORE and any other future presidents to “separate” themselves from “political considerations” involved in the issue of election security.

“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,” the committee wrote in the report. “These steps should include explicitly putting aside politics when addressing the American people on election threats and marshalling all the resources of the U.S. Government to effectively confront the threat.”

Beyond this, the Intelligence Committee strongly recommended that the White House should develop a range of policy options to respond to any foreign election interference, and that the director of national intelligence should provide a “regular, apolitical assessment” of foreign threats to U.S. elections. This assessment should be “reinforced” by both White House and Capitol Hill officials, the committee wrote.

The committee also concluded that the Obama administration’s decision to treat the cyber and geopolitical sides of Russian interference as separate issues until August 2016 “may have prevented the administration from seeing a more complete view of the threat, limiting its ability to respond.”

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The Obama administration did take measures to strike back against Russian interference in the final weeks of President’s Obama’s tenure, with his administration expelling dozens of Russian diplomats a month after the 2016 election. Obama also issued an executive order that levied sanctions on individuals who interfere in U.S. elections.

In addition to these steps, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson classified elections as critical infrastructure days before Trump was sworn into office.

The new report from the Intelligence Committee is the third to be released over the past year. The panel's first report, released in July, dealt with Russian attempts to target voting infrastructure in the lead-up to the 2016 election. The second volume, on Russian efforts to spread disinformation on social media, was made public in October.

The committee plans to release two more reports as part of its investigation, which will look into the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference and any remaining counterintelligence questions involving Moscow's interference efforts.

Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze Burr2020 on my mind: Democrats have to think like Mitch McConnell Loeffler traded .4M in stocks as Congress responded to coronavirus pandemic Before this pandemic ends, intel agencies should prepare for a world of threats MORE (R-N.C.) said in a statement on Thursday that the Obama administration was “frozen by the ‘paralysis of analysis,’” and did not respond well to reports of Russian interference.

“After discovering the existence, if not the full scope, of Russia’s election interference efforts in late 2016, the Obama Administration struggled to determine the appropriate response,” Burr said.

He noted that “many of their concerns were understandable, including the fear that warning the public of the election threat would only alarm the American people and accomplish Russia’s goal of undermining faith in our democratic institutions. In navigating those valid concerns, however, Obama officials made decisions that limited their options, including preventing internal information-sharing and siloing cyber and geopolitical threats.”

Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerTrump fires intelligence community inspector general who flagged Ukraine whistleblower complaint Hillicon Valley: Thousands of Zoom recordings exposed online | Google shares location data to counter virus | Dem senator pushes jobless benefits for gig workers | Twitter takes down 20,000 fake accounts Democrat presses Trump administration on jobless benefits for gig workers MORE (Va.), the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said in a separate statement that while there were “flaws with the U.S. response to the 2016 attack,” it was due to “problems with our own system.”

Warner said he was “particularly concerned that a legitimate fear raised by the Obama Administration – that warning the public of the Russian attack could backfire politically – is still present in our hyper-partisan environment."

Both Burr and Warner told reporters last week that the third report’s release was hampered by the declassification process, with portions of the report redacted by the intelligence community. 

The Intelligence panel, along with U.S. intelligence agencies and former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE, have all concluded that agents of Russia’s Internet Research Agency launched a sweeping and systematic attack on U.S. elections that included targeting election infrastructure across the nation and disinformation campaigns on social media. 

One key aspect of Russian interference was the hacking of Democratic National Committee (DNC) systems in the summer of 2016, which the report found many Obama administration officials did not become aware of until seeing news reports about the incident. 

Several recommendations in the new report dealt with actions to prevent cyber and disinformation attacks on U.S. elections, including urging the intelligence community to “clarify” roles and responsibilities related to responding to Russian foreign influence campaigns on social media. 

On the cybersecurity front, the committee strongly recommended that future administrations “synchronize cyber as an integral part of foreign policy activity, rather than treating cyber as an isolated domain.”

Intelligence Committee members Sens. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenDemocrats ask EPA, Interior to pause rulemaking amid coronavirus Democrats say more unemployment benefits needed in wake of record unemployment claims Democrats fear coronavirus impact on November turnout MORE (D-Ore.) and Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichDemocrats call for pollution reduction requirements in any aid for airlines, cruises Coronavirus takes toll on Capitol Hill GOP chairman cancels Hunter Biden-related subpoena vote MORE (D-N.M.) weighed in on the report through included “minority views” at the bottom of the third volume. Both raised concerns that the report did not tell the whole story of what occurred around the 2016 elections. 

“The Committee's report on the U.S. Government's response to Russian interference lacks critical information, leaving the American people in the dark about key events leading up to the 2016 election,” Wyden wrote, pointing to briefings between the Gang of Eight top congressional officials on election interference that did not involve formal recordkeeping.

The new report was released the day after FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to the House Judiciary Committee that foreign disinformation campaigns “never stopped” after the 2016 elections, and that the FBI has already seen evidence of Russian agents using “false personas and fake media accounts” to spread disinformation around U.S. elections online.