Obama weighing actions against Russia

Mr Obama waving after his last press conference for the year at the White House in Washington on Friday. He said he is committed to sending Russia a message that "we can do stuff to you", but without setting off an escalating cyber conflict.
Mr Obama waving after his last press conference for the year at the White House in Washington on Friday. He said he is committed to sending Russia a message that "we can do stuff to you", but without setting off an escalating cyber conflict.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

They would be a mix of public and covert actions that would 'increase the costs for them'

WASHINGTON • United States President Barack Obama has said for the first time that he held back from retaliating against Russia's meddling in the presidential race for fear of inciting further hacking "that could hamper vote counting".

But he said he was weighing a mix of public and covert actions against the Russians in his last 34 days in office - actions that would increase "the costs for them".

Mr Obama said on Friday, in his last news conference of the year, that he was committed to sending the Kremlin a message that "we can do stuff to you", but without setting off an escalating cyber conflict.

"There have been folks out there who suggest somehow if we went out there, and made big announcements and thumped our chests about a bunch of stuff, that somehow it would potentially spook the Russians," he said.

MEASURED RESPONSE

There have been folks out there who suggest somehow if we went out there, and made big announcements and thumped our chests about a bunch of stuff, that somehow it would potentially spook the Russians. I think it doesn't read the thought process in Russia very well.

US PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA

"I think it doesn't read the thought process in Russia very well."

The President did not reveal what steps he was considering and suggested that some of the options, if they were carried out, could remain secret. His remarks were tinged with melancholy at the impending end of his presidency, with foreboding about the changes that could follow with President-elect Donald Trump assuming office next month.

Mr Trump has called US intelligence claims about Russian hacking ridiculous and politically motivated.

The President spoke hours after Mrs Hillary Clinton bluntly accused Russia's President Vladimir Putin of orchestrating the hacks of her campaign and the Democratic National Committee "to undermine our democracy", as part of a "personal beef against me".

Mr Obama declined to place the blame so squarely on Mr Putin, though he noted, "Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin". He also sought to diminish the spectre of Russian influence over the US political process, saying Russia was a smaller, weaker country that "doesn't produce anything that anybody wants to buy, except oil and gas, and arms".

Still, the President was clearly wrestling with what he called the hacking affair and what the reaction to it revealed about the state of US politics.

Citing a recent poll that showed more than a third of Trump voters said they approved of Mr Putin, Mr Obama appealed to Americans not to allow partisan hatred and feuds to blind them to manipulation by foreign powers. "Unless that changes," Mr Obama said, "we're going to continue to be vulnerable to foreign influence because we've lost track of what it is that we're about and what we stand for."

He offered a long list of accomplishments that he said marked his eight years in office.

But the messy aftermath of Mr Trump's victory has raised questions about Mr Obama's pre-election response to the hacking, ignited a nasty squabble between Mr Trump and the nation's intelligence agencies, and left a residue of suspicion over the vote itself.

The President continued to defend his cautious approach to reports of hacking .

"We were playing this thing straight - we weren't trying to advantage one side or the other," Mr Obama said. "Imagine if we had done the opposite. It would have become one more political scrum."

The Kremlin denies US claims that Russia hacked official e-mails, and has called them "indecent".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 18, 2016, with the headline 'Obama weighing actions against Russia'. Print Edition | Subscribe