The Obama administration is reportedly finalizing a package of sanctions and diplomatic censure to punish Russia for its attempts to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election.
U.S. officials told The Washington Post that the response is expected to include covert cyber operations. An announcement describing the public elements could come as early as this week, the newspaper reported.
Holding up the announcement is an internal debate over how best to adapt a 2015 executive order that gave the president the authority to levy sanctions against foreign actors who carry out cyberattacks against the U.S.
The order was used as the “stick” in negotiations over a highly publicized 2015 agreement with China that neither nation would hack the other for economic gain.
But officials concluded this past fall that the order does not cover the kind of covert influence operation that the Intelligence Community believes Russia carried out during the election — hacking political organizations and leaking stolen emails with the goal of influencing the outcome.
The April 2015 order allows the Treasury Department to freeze the assets of individuals or entities who used digital means to damage U.S. critical infrastructure or engage in economic espionage.
“You would (a) have to be able to say that the actual electoral infrastructure, such as state databases, was critical infrastructure, and (b) that what the Russians did actually harmed it,” a senior administration official told The Post. “Those are two high bars.”
Officials told the newspaper that the order could be amended to clearly designate that it applies to election interference, or the government could declare the electoral system “critical infrastructure” — a controversial proposal that states have pushed back on in the past.
Obama has been under pressure from some Democrats to issue a response to Russia over the hacking before he cedes the White House to Donald Trump in January. Critics fear that Trump, who has expressed a desire for warmer relations with the Kremlin, will take no action against Russia.
“I have no confidence that President TrumpDonald TrumpStowaway found in landing gear of plane after flight from Guatemala to Miami Kushner looking to Middle East for investors in new firm: report GOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips MORE will bring about any sanctions on Russia. I’m more worried that he’s going to repeal the sanctions we already have than impose new ones,” Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffGOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips Sunday shows preview: New COVID-19 variant emerges; supply chain issues and inflation persist Jan. 6 panel may see leverage from Bannon prosecution MORE (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said this week. “So I think the administration ought to do what it’s going to do ASAP.”
The administration has publicly attributed attacks on the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and other political organizations — including Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s personal email account — to Russian intelligence. Intelligence officials believe the subsequent release of those stolen emails through WikiLeaks and other outlets was an attempt by the Russian government to meddle in the U.S. election.
The CIA and the FBI have reportedly assessed that the hacking and subsequent data dumps were an explicit effort to help Trump attain the White House at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump, meanwhile, has vehemently denied the reports. The president-elect frequently praises Putin and has expressed hope that Moscow and Washington can work closer together in the future.
The White House is reportedly taking steps to make the sanctions package against Russia difficult for the next administration to unravel.
“Part of the goal here is to make sure that we have as much of the record public or communicated to Congress in a form that would be difficult to simply walk back,” an official told the Post.
The response package is also aimed at deterring Russia from using the same kind of influence operations in the future, officials say.
“As much as I am concerned about what happened to us in the election, I am also concerned about what will happen to us in the future,” a second official told the Post. “I am firmly convinced that the Russians and others will say, ‘That worked pretty well in 2016, so let’s keep going.’ We have elections every two years in this country.”
The Obama White House has a range of other possible responses at its disposal, each of which comes with its own set of risks.
Officials say that while criminal indictments could be an option — like those used against five Chinese PLA officers in 2014 and seven Iranians earlier this year — the FBI has yet to amass sufficient evidence to proceed with the case.