Obama administration ‘not well-postured’ to counter Russian election interference, Senate committee finds

Difficulties in understanding the full scope of the Russian cyber threat hampered the administration's response.
Barack Obama
Obama admin officials told the committee they hesitated to share information about Russian interference due to concerns that Donald Trump would claim the election was “rigged.” (Pixabay)

The Senate Intelligence Committee has concluded that the Obama administration’s response to Russian election interference during the 2016 presidential election campaign was largely hamstrung by partisan concerns and a difficulty understanding the true scope of Russian capabilities and intentions, according to a new bipartisan report issued Thursday.

The report broadly addresses information-sharing issues, why a delay in definitive attribution to Russia took place and fears about undermining Americans’ trust in election processes.

It’s the latest installment of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s findings from its probe into Russia’s efforts, and comes after two prior reports on election security and Russia’s information operations.

Siloed understanding of cyber issues


The administration was caught off-guard by the concept of Russian cyber-operations pivoting from espionage to more disruptive measures, the report found.

“Witnesses interviewed by the committee consistently said that Russian cyber activity was a well-known issue within the administration, however hardly any administration officials had considered the threat of information collected through cyber-espionage being weaponized when assessing the consequences of the Russian cyber intrusions into the DNC and DCCC networks,” the report states.

The report reveals the administration, in the case of the Democratic National Committee breach, was behind the media in understanding the full scope of the threat. Former Obama administration officials — Michael Daniel, the cybersecurity coordinator; Lisa Monaco, the homeland security adviser; and Susan Rice, the national security adviser — told the committee they each were not aware of the DNC breach until they read news articles on the matter.

Of particular concern to the committee was the administration’s inability to blend the U.S. government’s understanding of Russia’s geopolitical goals and cyber-operations into one comprehensive view.

“The committee found that the Obama administration treated cyber and geopolitical aspects of the Russian active measures campaign as separate issues. This bifurcated approach may have prevented the administration from understanding the full extent of the threat Russia posed, limiting its ability to respond,” the report found.


Sen. Mark Warner, the Democratic vice chairman of the committee, said some of the administration’s issues were of its own making.

“There were many flaws with the U.S. 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, D-Va., said in a statement.

Sen. Richard Burr, the Republican chair of the committee, rebuked the Obama administration’s slow response, noting that key officials “made decisions that limited their options, including preventing internal information-sharing and siloing cyber and geopolitical threats.”

Moving forward, the committee recommends cybersecurity issues should be understood “as an integral part of the foreign policy landscape … rather than treating cyber as an isolated domain separate from other geopolitical considerations.”

The committee also recommends “increased information sharing on foreign influence efforts, both within government and publicly.”


Attribution difficulty

The administration also was hampered in countering Russia due to “a delay in definitive attribution to Russia,” the committee found.

Daniel said “conflicting cultures” in different U.S. intelligence agencies “commonly result in delays in the release of attribution statements, particularly with respect to ascribing the confidence level with which a statement can be made,” according to the report.

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson told the committee that by October 2016, the administration “had not reached the conclusion, yes, we will attribute to Russia.”

It was difficult for the Obama administration to speak out about Russian election interference due to constraints over sharing classified information emanating from the intelligence community, former Vice President Joe Biden told CNN Wednesday in an interview.


“We didn’t know, for certain, hard data [on Russian interference] until the election was over,” Biden said.

The committee called for better information sharing about threats of foreign interference between the government, the private sector, and state and local officials.

“In the event that an active measures campaign is detected, the public should be informed as soon as possible with a clear and succinct statement of the threat,” the report found, noting that efforts to conceal sources and methods should be undertaken.

Partisan concerns

The administration’s concerns about politicizing the election, or undermining the public’s confidence in U.S. political processes, particularly prevented the administration from responding appropriately, the committee found.


Officials told the committee they hesitated to share information about Russian interference in particular over concerns that Donald Trump would claim the election was “rigged.”

“[T]hey did not want the response to Russian election interference to be seen as a politically motivated action in an already highly political environment,” the report states. “They were concerned that warning the public about Russian efforts would be interpreted as the White House siding with one candidate.”

Warner said he is concerned this same partisanship could be hampering the current administration in dealing appropriately with interference attempts.

“I am particularly concerned … that [this] legitimate fear … is still present in our hyper-partisan environment,” Warner said.

Former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Rice both expressed concerns that the administration should be careful about “not doing the Russians’ dirty work for them.”


Next steps

Burr, R-N.C., said he thinks the government was better prepared to handle threats to the 2020 presidential election.

“Thankfully, as we approach the 2020 presidential election we are in a better position to identify foreign interference efforts and address vulnerabilities Russia and other hostile foreign actors may seek to exploit,“ Burr said.

Moving forward, the committee is recommending the U.S. reassert leadership on the international stage by setting cyber norms.

“The rules of cyber engagement are being written by hostile foreign actors, including Russia and China. U.S. leadership is necessary to establish any formalized international agreement on acceptable uses of cyber capabilities,” the report recommends.


U.S. efforts to stymie Russian and Chinese proposals on cyber norms at the United Nations have failed in recent months.

Another report focused on the intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s actions will be released before the committee issues its final findings.

Shannon Vavra

Written by Shannon Vavra

Shannon Vavra covers the NSA, Cyber Command, espionage, and cyber-operations for CyberScoop. She previously worked at Axios as a news reporter, covering breaking political news, foreign policy, and cybersecurity. She has appeared on live national television and radio to discuss her reporting, including on MSNBC, Fox News, Fox Business, CBS, Al Jazeera, NPR, WTOP, as well as on podcasts including Motherboard’s CYBER and The CyberWire’s Caveat. Shannon hails from Chicago and received her bachelor’s degree from Tufts University.

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