Capitol Hill -- The Obama administration failed to do enough to stop the Russians from meddling in the 2016 presidential elections, according to a bipartisan conclusion reached by members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Chairman Richard Burr, at a hearing Wednesday that is part of the panel’s broader Russia election interference investigation, said committee staff interviews with “many from the Obama administration” revealed that consistently, “They were operating in the summer and fall of 2016 without a playbook.”
Burr, a North Carolina Republican, described a struggle inside the Obama administration that involved an avoidance of any appearance that it might be putting a thumb on the political scale for Hillary Clinton.
Sen. Mark Warner, the committee's Vice Chairman, while highlighting a number of steps Obama officials took to try to sound the alarm, concurred with Burr, saying that officials were “caught flat-footed” and “could have done more to push back in the heat of the campaign,” noting that “the red flashing signals were all there.”
But Warner added that the Trump campaign shared the blame.
“The Trump campaign and its allies cravenly painted any attempt to call out Russia for its attacks as a political effort to help Clinton and to steal an election,” Warner, D-Va., said, claiming that Trump’s repeated warnings of a “rigged election” deterred government officials from acting publicly and more forcefully.
The Russian online interference campaign was foreshadowed by a cyber-intrusion years earlier that targeted former Obama Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, who testified at the Wednesday hearing. In 2014, Russia was alleged to have hacked Nuland and leaked a transcript of her phone call with an ambassador in which she profanely dismissed European efforts to end the political crisis in Ukraine.
Under questioning from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Nuland said, “I believe there were deterrence measures that we could have taken and should have taken.”
Michael Daniel, a former Obama cybersecurity coordinator, agreed with Nuland, saying it wasn’t until a year after the intrusion that officials were “fully cognizant” of what really happened, adding, “I don't think we fully appreciated the scope and scale of the Russian influence operations.”
Daniel confirmed reports that he, along with other National Security Council officials who were working on efforts to aggressively counter the Russian attack, was given a “stand down order” in August 2016 as disputes erupted inside the Obama administration on how to respond. He said details could be shared in a classified session following the hearing.
As for Russian efforts to penetrate state electoral systems, Daniel said it was “highly likely” that all 50 states at least had their systems scanned, as opposed to the 21 states that the Trump administration has confirmed were targeted.
Burr told reporters he expects more former Obama officials to testify in the weeks ahead, including former National Security Adviser Susan Rice and former Secretary of State John Kerry. Justice Department officials are expected next month.