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Senate report details Obama administration's response to Russian interference

Posted February 6, 2020 11:14 a.m. EST

— The Senate Intelligence Committee released the third installment of its five-part report on Russian interference in the 2016 election Thursday, focusing on the Obama administration's reaction to initial reports of Moscow's efforts and the steps officials took — and failed to take — to deter them.

The committee wrote that the Obama administration was constrained in its response by a number of external and internal concerns," adding that the US government was "not well-postured to counter Russian election interference activity with a full range of readily-available policy options."

"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. Frozen by 'paralysis of analysis,' hamstrung by constraints both real and perceived, Obama officials debated courses of action without truly taking one," committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said in a statement.

"Many of their concerns were understandable, including the fear that warning the public of the election threat would only alarm the American people and accomplish Russia's goal of undermining faith in our democratic institutions. In navigating those valid concerns, however, Obama officials made decisions that limited their options, including preventing internal information-sharing and siloing cyber and geopolitical threats," he said.

The committee's recommendations included several directed to President Donald Trump, who has continued to publicly doubt the Russian hacking operation in 2016 despite the intelligence community and his senior officials all saying that it happened. Among the recommendations, the committee said that the President should "take steps to separate himself or herself from political considerations when handling issues related to foreign influence operations."

"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 said.

The committee's top Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, agreed with his Republican counterpart that "there were many flaws with the US response to the 2016 attack."

"But it's worth noting that many of those were due to problems with our own system -- problems that can and should be corrected," Warner added. "I am particularly concerned however, that a legitimate fear raised by the Obama Administration -- that warning the public of the Russian attack could backfire politically -- is still present in our hyper-partisan environment."

In its recommendations, the committee said that officials both in the administration and Congress, regardless of party affiliation, should "jointly and publicly reinforce the DNl's findings, particularly if a foreign influence effort is directed at specific candidates seeking office."

The committee also warned that "sitting officials and candidates should use the absolute greatest amount of restraint and caution if they are considering publicly calling the validity of an upcoming election into question."

"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," the panel wrote in its recommendations.

Thursday's report is the third of five planned volumes from the committee's bipartisan investigation into Russia's election interference and possible collusion with the Trump campaign. The first volume of the report detailed Russian attacks on US election infrastructure, which was released in July, and the second was on Russia's use of social media during the 2016 campaign.

The two remaining installments will examine the 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment on Russian interference and the Committee's final counterintelligence findings, according to the committee. That last volume is where the committee is expected to tackle what it found investigating Trump campaign contacts with Russians and WikiLeaks.

The general narrative the report details about the Obama administration's struggles to respond quickly and aggressively enough to the Russian hacking is well known. But there are some new details.

The committee explains, for instance, what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a September 2016 meeting when he resisted a joint congressional letter alerting the Russian hacking. Lisa Monaco, Obama's then-counterterrorism adviser, told the committee in a closed 2018 hearing that she recalled McConnell saying: "[y]ou security people should be careful that you're not getting used." The committee wrote Monaco interpreted McConnell's comments "as suggestive that the intelligence regarding Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 elections was being inflated or used for partisan ends."

The report quoted Burr responding to Monaco at the hearing to say the Senate leader was raising the question: "Would this not contribute to Russia's efforts at creating concerns about our election process, if the leadership of the Congress put that letter out?"

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