WASHINGTON — Partisan divisions and Republican congressional leaders’ reluctance to publicly acknowledge Russian election interference in 2016 contributed to a delayed response by the Obama administration in the midst of the presidential campaign, according to a Senate Intelligence Committee report released Thursday.
The report painted the Obama administration as moving too slowly and indecisively to address the interference or to counter it, and it cited the “heavily politicized environment” in American politics in 2016 as one factor preventing a more forceful response.
Though separate from its central findings, the mention of Republican congressional leaders’ role in forestalling a stronger response was notable for a report from a Republican-led committee.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. and the Senate majority leader, reacted skeptically after receiving an intelligence briefing in September 2016 about the Russian interference, a former Obama administration official said in the report.
“You security people should be careful that you’re not getting used,” McConnell told Lisa Monaco, the homeland security adviser under President Barack Obama at the time, according to the report.
Some members of Congress at the briefing “resisted the administration request that a bipartisan statement be made regarding Russia being responsible for interference activities,” numerous Obama administration officials said, according to the report.
McConnell, according to both the report and his defenders, was concerned in part that a big public announcement could in effect aid the Russian effort. He asked at the briefing whether a public letter condemning the interference would “contribute to Russia’s efforts at creating concerns about our election process,” the report said.
Many government officials shared that concern, and it held back the Obama administration, according to lawmakers. The intelligence community would not reach a consensus on Russia’s interference until several months later.
“It was a paradox. If you announce publicly the Russians were trying to interfere with the election, that in itself would sow distrust,” said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who caucuses with the Democrats and is a member of the Intelligence Committee.
He noted that the report described McConnell’s reservations about the intelligence in a noninflammatory manner. “It is one of the best indications of the straight-up honesty of this committee’s process,” King said.
Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden, have previously accused McConnell 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 ultimately released in late September 2016.
The response to Russia’s meddling presented a difficult political calculus for McConnell: A public acknowledgment before the election might have deterred Moscow and improved voters’ trust in the outcome, but none of that was assured, and it also could have cost Republicans the White House.
The full report from the committee, led by Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., wavers on the effect that any high-level U.S. government warning would have had on Russia’s campaign of election sabotage. The Kremlin’s operations continued even as the Obama administration began discussing them publicly, Senate investigators found.
“After the warnings, Russia continued its cyberactivity to include further public dissemination of stolen emails, clandestine social-media-based influence operations, and penetration of state voting infrastructure through Election Day 2016,” the report said.
Until the summer of 2016, administration officials viewed Russia’s cyberattacks as separate from its broader foreign policy goals and intelligence campaigns. That “bifurcated approach may have prevented the administration from seeing a more complete view of the threat,” the report said.
Even as of Oct. 1, 2016, administration officials had not reached a consensus that they would publicly attribute the meddling to Russia. Several issues divided the administration, like WikiLeaks’ role in disseminating Democratic emails stolen by Russian hackers and whether the organization should be considered a news outlet and granted First Amendment protections.
The scope of the Russian campaign was difficult to understand both inside the administration and on Capitol Hill, the report made clear. “Attribution is really hard,” King said. “It is not like there is a return address.”
The report also contains some new details about the Obama administration’s efforts to halt the Russian interference campaign. The administration delivered five direct warnings to “various levels of the Russian government,” including messages from Obama to President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the report said.
Obama warned Putin in a note that “the kind of consequences that he could anticipate would be powerfully impactful to their economy and far exceed anything that he had seen to date,” the report said, citing an interview with Susan E. Rice, Obama’s national security adviser at the time.
But those warnings fell short, said Marc Polymeropoulos, a CIA official who retired last year. He said that it had become clear that officials should have undertaken a more effective public campaign.
“You can’t argue we did enough; the Russians didn’t stop,” he said. “Threats to the Russians don’t work. The Russians need to be punched in the nose. Sanctions are effective.”
The Obama administration ultimately imposed sanctions on the Kremlin’s two leading intelligence services and banished 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives from the country.
Even as they presented the report’s findings as bipartisan, Democrats and Republicans on the committee highlighted the still-acrimonious partisan divide over the 2016 campaign in their responses.
Burr 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.
In a supplement to the report, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the failure in the midst of the campaign to make a “bipartisan public acknowledgment of the ongoing attack by Russia” had serious implications.
Such a statement, Wyden wrote, might have prompted the news media to give more context in its reporting of disclosures by WikiLeaks about the Clinton campaign, most importantly noting that “their release was part of a Russian influence campaign” devised to assist Trump, then the Republican presidential nominee.
The committee report included a range of recommendations to ensure the government is better prepared to react to a foreign influence campaign in future elections. Legislation enacted last year requires the director of national intelligence to present regular assessments of such threats before elections, the report noted.
Senators also called for the executive branch to be more forthcoming with the public, particularly if foreign influence operations — called “active measures” by the Russians — are underway.
“In the event that such a 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,” the report said.
King said the election system is better off now. The intelligence community is on alert about threats to it, and individual states are doing more to listen to the federal government about potential weaknesses in voting systems, he said. But problems remain.
“Are we invulnerable? Absolutely not,” King said. “I continue to believe the states are much more vulnerable than they believe. They are overconfident.”