Obama Vows Retaliation as Evidence of Russian Hacking Mounts

Reprisals will come at a “time and place of our own choosing,” Obama said.

ByABC News
December 17, 2016, 1:43 AM

— -- With the Russians demanding to see evidence that implicates them in cyber-attacks, President Barack Obama is vowing retaliation for hacking operations aimed at interfering with the U.S. election.

“I think there is no doubt that when any foreign government tries to impact the integrity of our elections ... we need to take action. And we will — at a time and place of our own choosing,” the president told NPR on Thursday.

“Some of it may be explicit and publicized; some of it may not be," he added.

The Russians, meanwhile, are scoffing at the accusations as their spy-turned-president, Vladimir Putin, continues a visit to Japan.

PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a signing ceremony following a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo, Japan, Dec. 16, 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a signing ceremony following a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo, Japan, Dec. 16, 2016.

“It’s time either to stop talking about this or finally to present evidence,” Putin’s Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “Otherwise it starts to look highly indecent.”

For his part, Putin has kept mum on the issue as U.S. officials say that they have solid evidence that Putin personally ordered and directed the brazen cyber operations, that – in notable cases – saw the private emails of prominent Democrats spilled out into public view.

“Mr. Putin is well aware of my feelings about this, because I spoke to him directly about it,” Obama told NPR, referring to a sideline discussion between the two leaders at a G20 summit in China this past September.

In his year-end news conference on Friday, Obama said that since massive attacks on the Democratic National Committee were discovered one of his main concerns was preventing “potential hacking that could hamper vote counting, affect the actual election process itself.”

To that end, at the G20 summit Obama says he told Putin “to cut it out, and there were going to be some serious consequences if he didn’t.”

“In fact, we did not see further tampering of the election process,” Obama said. “But the leaks through WikiLeaks had already occurred.”

But while the Russians attempt to deflect, the intelligence community remains steadfast in their assessment.

“They know with a near certainty that Putin was involved – that’s not something they say lightly,” Richard Clarke, an ABC News consultant who served in the administrations of Presidents Reagan, Clinton and both Bushes. “That's something they say when they do have a smoking gun.”

Indeed, the intelligence community is so convinced that the one-time KGB colonel and master spy is behind the attacks that officials now say he will be a line of inquiry in an FBI investigation into the matter.

Cracking the Code

Beneath the hood of the malicious code that was used to hack the Democratic National Convention were tell-tale signs of Russian involvement, a cybersecurity expert told ABC News.

Justin Harvey, a cybersecurity expert who works at Accenture and who was involved in the investigation while working for a different firm, told ABC News in July that there were two actors involved in the attack on the DNC.

“One of them is Russian intelligence and one of them is the Russian military,” Harvey said. “We saw the Cyrillic alphabet being use in the compiler, we saw the level of complexity of the malware is not your run-of-the-mail ransomware cybercriminal that perhaps sits in their mother's basement, it was very much nation-state level, very complex code that was being utilized.”

But, Harvey said, the clearest evidence was the IP address that that malicious software used to phone home.

“It was an IP address that had been previously seen in other Russian-attributed attacks, including the German parliament, the Bundestag, they encountered a breach last year with the same malware, the same IP address, and then also attributed to the Russians,” he said.

But how are officials coming to the conclusion that Putin has been personally directing the cyber operations?

The FBI joined the CIA today in the assessment that the Russian President was directly involved in the hack attack, based on new information that authorities say comes from directly inside the Kremlin.

U.S. Response

“If you mess with the United States, we will mess with you back,” John Carlin, the former head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, told ABC News. “It's very important that we show that we are capable of figuring out who did it because the deterrence depends on that.”

PHOTO: An illuminated server room panel is seen here.
An illuminated server room panel is seen here.

It’s important that the U.S. starts, “taking actions to show others that's it's not open season on the United States' systems whether they are private companies or the government,” he added.

But whether the incoming president is prepared to make an example of those who have attacked America in cyberspace isn’t clear.

From his skyscraper office in New York, President-elect Donald Trump has continued to defend Russia and Putin, as he did throughout the campaign and in the weeks since the election.

“Are we talking about the same cyberattack where it was revealed that head of the DNC illegally gave Hillary the questions to the debate?” Trump tweeted shortly after 6 a.m. on Friday, referring to accusations that Democratic operative and CNN commentator Donna Brazile leaked a question to Hillary Clinton ahead of a Democratic primary debate hosted by the network. Brazile has also contributed to ABC News.

Those accusations point to potentially unethical behavior but it isn’t clear that Brazile would have broken any laws.

That tweet was the second in less than 24 hours in which the incoming president underscored his skepticism of the intelligence community’s assessments and suggested concerns over Russian hacking was politically motivated.

But, sitting at the top of Trump tower in Manhattan, Trump is growing increasingly lonely in his opposition to the intelligence community’s conclusions.

As evidence has mounted, fellow Republicans are now warning the Russian hacking could jeopardize the confirmation of Trump’s pick to be Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson – the CEO of Exxon and an unabashed admirer of Putin.

This story was originally published at 10:46 a.m. ET on Dec. 16, 2016. It has been updated throughout the day with new information.

ABC News’ Patrick Reevell, James Gordon Meek, Matthew Mosk and Paul Blake contributed to this report.

Related Topics