WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan report released Thursday by the Senate Intelligence Committee says 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 the government develop specific responses to foreign influence campaigns to better safeguard against incursions, and integrate those efforts across agencies and with the governments of other countries contending with Russian aggression. Its report also 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.
Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden, have previously accused Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. and the Senate majority leader, of stopping the Obama administration from speaking out more forcefully against Russian interference. McConnell has long denied those allegations, pointing to a bipartisan letter that congressional leaders released in late September 2016.
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 says. So the response stuck mostly to warnings of largely unspecified "consequences," communicated by then-President Barack Obama to Russian President Vladimir Putin, from national security adviser Susan Rice to the Russian ambassador to the United States, and from Secretary of State John Kerry and CIA Director John 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 conducted with senior intelligence, diplomatic and national security officials from the Obama administration, senators note they have the "benefit of hindsight."
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who led the committee, aimed his criticism at the Obama administration, accusing officials of sharing too little information inside the government.
"Frozen by 'paralysis of analysis,' hamstrung by constraints both real and perceived, Obama officials debated courses of action without truly taking one," Burr said.
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."
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."
Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Tom Cotton, R-Ark., James Risch, R-Idaho, Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ben Sasse, R-Neb., also argued that the highly politicized environment does not "excuse the administration's failures to heed clear intelligence warnings, establish an effective 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.
Information for this article was contributed by Karoun Demirjian and Devlin Barrett of The Washington Post; and by Julian E. Barnes of The New York Times.
A Section on 02/07/2020
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