Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) meets with his US counterpart Barack Obama on the sidelines of the G20 Leaders Summit in Hangzhou on September 5, 2016.
Alexei Druzhinin | AFP | Getty Images
The Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday issued its long-awaited report on how former President Barack Obama handled Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
The bipartisan report found that the Obama administration was ill-prepared to handle the novel election interference offensive and recommended that in the future the “public should be informed as soon as possible” if a foreign active measures campaign is detected.
“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,” the committee’s GOP chairman, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, said in a statement.
“Frozen by ‘paralysis of analysis,’ hamstrung by constraints both real and perceived, Obama officials debated courses of action without truly taking one,” he said.
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the committee’s top Democrat, said that there were “many flaws” with the Obama administration’s response but noted that “many of those were due to problems with our own system – problems that can and should be corrected.”
The report was released one day after President Donald Trump was acquitted by the Senate of a charge that he abused his power by seeking to pressure the government of Ukraine to open investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden. He was also acquitted of a charge of obstruction of Congress. Trump has denied any wrongdoing.
Trump, who spent the first two years of his presidency dogged by a federal investigation into whether he unlawfully conspired with the Russian government in the 2016 election, has criticized Obama for his handling of the situation.
“He did NOTHING, and had no intention of doing anything!” Trump wrote in a post on Twitter last year.
The U.S. intelligence community concluded in 2017 that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign during the 2016 campaign targeting Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and that the Russian government had a “clear preference” for Trump.
The attacks included the pilfering of data and emails from Democratic National Committee networks which were then released to outlets including WikiLeaks, an anti-secrecy group, in a manner designed to raise doubts about Clinton’s viability.
The Senate Intelligence Committee also concluded that the Russian government sought to bolster Trump’s 2016 election chances.
Former special counsel Robert Mueller, who led the investigation into Trump’s campaign, concluded that Trump expected to benefit from Russian interference. Mueller, however, did not establish coordination between Trump’s associates and the Russian disinformation campaign.
The Senate report released Thursday is the third, out of an expected five, stemming from the committee’s probe into the government’s handling of Russian meddling efforts. The investigation began in 2017 and has proceeded on a largely bipartisan basis, in contrast with parallel congressional inquiries.
‘Cut it out’
The committee found that the Obama administration was “not well-postured” to counter the Russian interference campaign and said that while “high-level warnings were delivered to Russian officials, those warnings may or may not have tempered Moscow’s activity.”
Obama said in 2016 that he confronted Putin over allegations that the Russian leader ordered the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, telling him to “cut it out.”
The committee noted that institutional constraints prevented the administration from acting more aggressively. The report documents members of the administration agonizing over the potential that a public statement about the hacking efforts — while Obama was actively campaigning for Clinton — would be perceived as political.
“Those factors included the highly politicized environment, concern that public warnings would themselves undermine confidence in the election, and a delay in definitive attribution to Russia, among other issues,” the report said.
It noted that most administration officials first learned about the Russian hacking efforts from a June 2016 article in The Washington Post. In October of that year, the administration released its first public statement saying that the intelligence community was “confident” that the Russian government directed cyberattacks on American political organizations.
The committee emphasized that in case of future attacks, the public should be notified “as soon as possible with a clear and succinct statement of the threat.”
“If the Administration had informed the public of Russian hacking and dumping earlier than October 7, and had there been bipartisan condemnation of these operations, the public and the press may have reacted differently to the WikiLeaks releases,” the committee wrote.
“At the least, stories about Democratic emails might have mentioned that their release was part of a Russian influence campaign and that Donald Trump’s repeated references to the releases, his stated adoration of WikiLeaks, and his solicitation of Russian assistance were taking place in the context of an ongoing influence campaign to assist him,” it said.
The committee will release two more reports on its findings. Those will cover the intelligence community’s 2017 assessment of Russian interference and the committee’s final counterintelligence findings. The committee did not say when those reports will be released.
A spokesperson for Obama did not immediately respond to a request for comment.