President Barack Obama’s vow to retaliate against Russia’s alleged interference in the American election raises the prospect that he will impose new sanctions or conduct some form of cyber operations against Russia before he leaves office on January 20.
Under pressure from many Democrats for not having done more to push back and deter Russia during the election campaign, the White House is now preparing a new set of options for the president that could be implemented within his last month in office.
At his final 2016 White House press conference on Friday, Mr Obama indicated that Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally been involved with the hacking of the Democratic National Committee this year and the emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta.
“Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin. This is a pretty hierarchical operation. Last time I checked there’s not a lot of debate and democratic deliberation particularly when it comes to policies directed at the United States. We have said, and I will confirm, that this happened at the highest levels of the Russian government,” Mr Obama said.
“The intelligence I’ve seen gives me great confidence that the Russians have carried out this hack — the hack of the DNC and the hack of John Podesta,” he said.
Mr Obama said that when he met Mr Putin at a G20 summit in China in September he told the Russian president to “cut it out” or there would be “some serious consequences”. He said that after this warning “we did not see further tampering of the election process”, although a leak of Clinton campaign emails to WikiLeaks had already taken place.
In an interview with National Public Radio released on Friday, Mr Obama said he was still waiting to see a final report on Russian hacking during the election but promised there would be a response “at a time and place of our own choosing”.
“There is no doubt that when any foreign government tries to impact the integrity of our elections . . . we need to take action,” Mr Obama told NPR. “And we will, at a time and place of our own choosing. Some of it may be explicit and publicised, some of it may not be.”
Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin . . . I will confirm that this happened at the highest levels of the Russian government
The CIA and other US intelligence agencies have concluded that the Kremlin orchestrated cyber attacks on the DNC in an attempt to interfere with the US electoral process.
The conclusions have sparked investigations on Capitol Hill into the alleged Russian hacking and what impact it may have had, while the White House is conducting its own probe. The CIA has concluded that the alleged hacking was aimed at helping Donald Trump beat Mrs Clinton — a claim the president-elect has described as “ridiculous”. On Friday, CIA director John Brennan said in an internal memo that James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, and FBI director James Comey, now agreed with the agency’s view on the “intent of Russian interference”.
At a donors’ event on Thursday night, Mrs Clinton attributed her election loss partly to the FBI’s decision to reopen a probe into her email server just weeks before the election, and partly to Mr Putin’s meddling in the US election, which she called “an attack against our country”, the New York Times reported.
“Putin publicly blamed me for the outpouring of outrage by his own people, and that is the direct line between what he said back then and what he did in the election,” Mrs Clinton was quoted as saying in a reference to Mr Putin blaming her for the 2011-2012 anti-government protests in Russia.
“We are well beyond normal political concerns here. This is about the integrity of our democracy and the security of our nation.”
Representatives for Mrs Clinton’s campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Obama administration came close to authorising retaliatory measures against Russia during the election but the president declined to authorise the steps.
On Friday Mr Obama defended his initial response to the hacking during the campaign, saying that in the current “hyperpartisan atmosphere” any action by his administration might have hurt “the integrity of the election process”.
“We were playing this thing straight. We were not trying to advantage one side or the other,” he said. “Imagine if we had done the opposite. It would have become one more political scrum.” US officials say the administration was also worried about the potential for Russian retaliation during an election.
The White House wrangled with two other issues: how to decide what constitutes a “proportional” response to the apparent effort to manipulate the election and how to establish some form of deterrence when some of the potential US responses would be top secret.
The options that have been under consideration include imposing more sanctions on Russia under the authority of the new cyber executive order introduced last year.
US officials have also discussed ways to make public information about Mr Putin and his inner circle that might be embarrassing to them and cyber operations within Russia.
The debate over Russian election hacking has prompted a growing rift between the White House and the president-elect, with Mr Trump saying on Thursday that Mr Obama’s press secretary Josh Earnest was “a foolish guy”. Mr Earnest said on Thursday that it was unlikely that Russia would have engaged in hacking at such a level without obtaining approval from Mr Putin.
Mr Trump, who insists it is not clear that Russia was behind the election-related hacking, used Twitter to claim that the White House only started to make a big deal about the hacking “after Hillary lost”. On Friday, he appeared to welcome the fact that the cyber attack on the DNC had helped reveal misdeeds by Democratic officials.
The furore around the hacking has sparked rare criticism from a president-elect of the CIA, which will serve him following his inauguration on January 20.
Robert Gates, the former CIA director and Pentagon chief, this week said it was unusual for a president-elect to take such a critical stance.
“I suspect that he’s reacting to an assessment that he sees as questioning the legitimacy of his election,” said Mr Gates.
In the NPR interview, Mr Obama said: “ . . . everyone during the election perceived accurately — that in fact what the Russian hack had done was create more problems for the Clinton campaign than it had for the Trump campaign.”
In an opinion article for The Washington Post on Friday, Mr Podesta said: “The election is over and the damage is done, but the threat from Russia and other potential aggressors remains urgent and demands a serious and sustained response.”
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