A bipartisan report released Thursday by the Senate Intelligence Committee says that the Obama administration mounted an insufficient response to Russia’s election interference in 2016, but that its failures were “understandable” because the government lacked information and had limited policy options at the time.
The panel recommended that the government develop specific responses to foreign influence campaigns to better safeguard against future incursions, and integrate those efforts across agencies and with the governments of other countries contending with Russian aggression. Itsreportalso said the president must be more direct with the American public about the nature of such threats, and “separate himself or herself from political considerations” when handling these issues.
“These steps should include explicitly putting aside politics when addressing the American people on election threats and marshaling all the resources of the U.S. Government to effectively confront the threat,” the report states.
Political concerns, the report found, played an influential role in the Obama administration’s “tempered” response to the Russian threat, as officials’ fears about stoking a politically charged election season with vocal alerts about Russia’s activity created a snowball effect, ultimately allowing the Russian campaign to proliferate relatively unchecked.
Part of the problem was an incomplete understanding of the scope of the effort, the committee found, and a delay in definitively attributing the incursions to Russia. The extent to which Russia “could target and manipulate election systems” was “unknown” at the time, the committee found, as was the scope of the threat, because the administration had a “bifurcated” approach to Russia, treating its cyber and geopolitical capacities “as separate issues until August 2016.”
Internally, officials recalled, there was little or no discussion about a “pre-election response,” as the government was “concerned about escalation” with Moscow. Officials “did not know the full range of Moscow’s capabilities and were fearful that the Russians might attempt to affect electoral infrastructure,” the report states. So the response stuck mostly to warnings of largely unspecified “consequences,” communicated by President Obama to Russian President Vladimir Putin, from national security adviser Susan E. Rice to the Russian ambassador to the United States, and from Secretary of State John F. Kerry and CIA Director John O. Brennan to their counterparts in Moscow.
Still, the report states plainly that “the U.S. Government was not well-postured to counter Russian election interference activity with a full range of readily-available policy options.”
In the report, which reflects several interviews the committee did with senior intelligence, diplomatic and national security officials from the Obama administration, senators note that they have the “benefit of hindsight” that those officials did not in 2016. Yet it is unclear how far the report will go toward quelling the political fervor that continues today about how the events surrounding the last election were handled, given President Trump’s continued fixation with it.
Trump’s accusations during the 2016 campaign season that the election was “rigged” caused officials to tread carefully around issuing public warnings about the Russian threat, fearing that such notification would be viewed as “politically motivated” to help his then-rival Hillary Clinton, whom Obama was actively promoting.
The report urges restraint from political candidates when it comes to questioning the “validity of an upcoming election,” warning: “Such a grave allegation can have significant national security and electoral consequences, including limiting the response options of the appropriate authorities, and exacerbating the already damaging messaging efforts of foreign intelligence services.”
Yet the report sheds only limited light on some episodes that continue to hang over the coming election.
Passages explaining the hacking of the Democratic National Committee server, for example — the event underpinning Trump’s impeachment — are heavily redacted. The sections of the report dealing with WikiLeaks, which published materials from the DNC hack, also are heavily redacted, although the report details a dispute about how to treat WikiLeaks, saying it slowed the administration’s response to Russia’s election interference.
In an addendum to the report, five Republican senators from the Intelligence Committee harshly criticized the Obama administration for “hollow threats and slow, hapless responses” after the 2016 election that “translated to perceived weakness on the part of the U.S.” Putin, they said, “exploited that weakness with impunity.”
Republican Sens. John Cornyn (Tex.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), James E. Risch (Idaho), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ben Sasse (Neb.) also argued that the highly politicized environment does not “excuse the administration’s failures to heed clear intelligence warnings, establish an effect deterrent, or take effective action to counter Russia’s activities before, and after November 8, 2016.”
In another addendum, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said the Obama administration should have informed more lawmakers, and revealed more publicly, about the scope and scale of Russia’s activities.
“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,” Wyden wrote. “How might things have turned out differently?”
The report recommended that in the future when a disinformation or interference campaign is detected, “the public should be informed as soon as possible, with a clear and succinct statement of the threat, even if the information is incomplete.” Any delay, it says, “allows inaccurate narratives to spread, which makes the task of informing the public significantly harder.”