Obama Suggests Putin Behind Hacks to Influence Vote

President Declares U.S. Will Retaliate for Cyberattacks
Obama Suggests Putin Behind Hacks to Influence Vote
President Obama at Dec. 16 press conference

President Barack Obama, saying the United States will retaliate against Russia for conducting hacks aimed at influencing the American presidential election, strongly suggested Dec. 16 that Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized the cyberattacks against Democratic Party computers.

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At a White House press conference, reporters twice asked Obama whether he believed Putin authorized the hacks. Both times Obama declined to name Putin as the mastermind, but said:

"Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin; this is a pretty hierarchical operation. Last I checked, there's not a lot of debate and democratic deliberation, particularly when it comes to policies directed at the U.S. We have said, and I will confirm, that this [election hack] happened at highest levels of the Russian government, and I will let you make the determination as to whether there were high-level Russian officials who go off rogue and decided to tamper with the U.S. election process without Vladimir Putin knowing about it."

Retaliation: Time, Place of Our Choosing

At the press conference, and in an NPR interview broadcast earlier in the day, Obama said the United States would retaliate for the breaches. "There is no doubt that when any foreign government tries to impact the integrity of our elections ... we need to take action," Obama said in the NPR interview. "And we will, at a time and place of our own choosing. Some of it may be explicit and publicized; some of it may not be."

The Central Intelligence Agency has concluded that Russian hackers targeted computers of both major U.S. political parties, but only leaked information regarding the Democrats to sway the election in favor of the eventual winner, Donald Trump (see CIA Says Kremlin Tried to Sway Vote Toward Trump). Obama earlier this month ordered an intelligence community review of the Russian cyberattacks, with the findings expected to be delivered to the president before he leaves office on Jan. 20.

Trump on several occasions has made positive remarks about Putin and his leadership, and the president-elect, before and after the election, questioned the validity of the CIA's analysis that Russia hacked U.S. political party computers.

Shift in Attitude after Inauguration?

Asked whether actions his administration might take against the Russians over the election interference would be continued by a Trump administration that views the Kremlin more favorably, Obama said a new president sees matters differently after taking office than he does during the campaign or during the weeks leading up to inauguration.

President Obama places the election hacks in context of overall federal government cybersecurity challenges.

Obama said the U.S. government avoided retaliation, at least publicly, before the election, expressing concerns that such actions might be seen as partisan meddling in the campaign. "We were playing this thing straight," he told reporters. "We weren't trying to advantage one side or the other. ... Imagine if we had done the opposite. It would have become one more political scrum."

The president said that when he met with Putin in China last September, he told his Russian counterpart to "cut it out."

Dmitry Pescov, a spokesman for Putin, in a statement published by Russian news agencies, said regarding the allegations of hacking that the United States should "either stop talking about it or finally produce some evidence, otherwise it all begins to look unseemly."

Report: FBI Agrees with CIA's Breach Analysis

The Washington Post, citing U.S. officials, reports that FBI Director James Comey and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr. are in agreement with the CIA assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election, in part, to help Trump win the presidency.

The Post says a House intelligence briefing by a senior FBI counterintelligence official last week left some Republican and Democratic lawmakers with the impression that the bureau wasn't on the same page as the CIA, according to officials present. "The truth is they were never all that different in the first place," an official told the news organization, referring to the FBI and CIA positions.

On Capitol Hill, Richard Burr, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, announced that the panel will investigate the allegations of the Russian attacks on the electoral system. Most of the committee's work will be conducted behind closed doors, Burr said, although it will hold open hearings to help inform the public. "The committee will follow the intelligence wherever it leads," Burr said in a statement. "We will conduct this review expeditiously, but we will take the time to get it right and will not be influenced by uninformed discourse."

About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Retired Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Chabrow, who retired at the end of 2017, hosted and produced the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversaw ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.

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