Obama says US was cautious in handling Russian election hacks

US President Barack Obama holds a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, in Washington, DC.
US President Barack Obama holds a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, in Washington, DC. PHOTO: EPA

WASHINGTON (THE WASHINGTON POST)  - President Barack Obama said on Friday (Dec 16) that  the US government took a cautious approach to allegations the Russians had hacked Democratic Party officials before the election out of concern that the issue would be politicised.

“I wanted to make sure we were playing this thing straight,” Obama said at his last annual end-of-the-year news conference at the White House, defending his administration against criticism that it did not more aggressively combat the hacking.

“My principal goal leading up to the election was making sure the election itself went off without a hitch, it was not tarnished, and it did not feed any sense in the public that somehow tampering had taken place with the actual process of voting,” Obama said. “And we accomplished that.”

Russia backed off after Obama personally warned the country’s president, Vladimir Putin, against further hacks during a visit to China in September, the President said. But by then e-mails belonging to the Democratic National Committee and its officials were in the hands of Wikileaks.

Obama declined to say if the hacks cost Democrat Hillary Clinton the election.

“I’m gonna let all the political pundits in this town have a long discussion about what happened in this election,” he said. “I don’t think she was treated fairly during the election. The coverage of her, and the issues, was troubling.” 

 
 
 

Earlier, Obama vowed the US would respond to Russian election-related cyberattacks in an interview with NPR News that aired on Friday. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, told donors at a fund-raiser on Thursday that the hacks were partially to blame for her loss to President-elect Donald Trump. 

Clinton said that the Russians had sought to “undermine our democracy” through the cyber attacks, which she believed were a result of Putin’s “personal beef” against her.

“Putin publicly blamed me for the outpouring of outrage by his own people, and that is the direct line between what he said back then and what he did in this election,” the Democrat said, according to a recording of the event obtained by the New York Times.

She also said that FBI director James Comey’s Oct 28 letter disclosing a new investigation of e-mails from her time as secretary of state damaged her with swing-state voters days before the election. The two factors were “unprecedented,” Clinton said.

The President, in the NPR interview, said that “we need to take action” following any attempt by a foreign government to impact the integrity of US elections.

“And we will,” Obama said. “At a time and place of our own choosing. Some of it may be explicit and publicised; some of it may not be.” 

The renewed focus on the Russian hack has prompted complaints from the Trump transition team that the White House is attempting to undermine the Republican’s victory. The administration announced late last week plans to issue a report on electoral cyberattacks before Obama leaves office on Jan 20.

The White House and Trump team have traded escalating insults in recent days that threaten the detente between Trump and Obama, who has sought a working relationship with his successor partially in a bid to preserve some of his policies.

It’s also blurred traditional party lines in Washington, with some Republicans expressing alarm over Russia’s attempts to influence an election ultimately won by their nominee and some Democrats upset the White House didn’t more aggressively confront the Kremlin before Election Day.

In a tweet early on Friday, Trump tried to return attention to revelations in e-mails revealed by the alleged Russian hack. “Are we talking about the same cyber-attack where it was revealed that head of the DNC illegally gave Hillary the questions to the debate?” Trump wrote. 

He was referring to e-mails stolen from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta which indicated that a Democratic official and CNN analyst, Donna Brazile, had obtained questions to be asked in debates during the Democratic primary and relayed them in advance to Clinton’s campaign.

The President-elect’s latest missive followed a Twitter message on Thursday that again cast doubt on Russian involvement in the hacking and erroneously said the Obama administration had waited until after the election to respond.

At a rally on Thursday in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Trump targeted White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, who has repeatedly criticised the President-elect for refusing to publicly accept Russia’s role in the leak of e-mails.

Trump called Earnest a “foolish guy,” and suggested the press secretary was “getting his orders” from someone other than Obama.

In the NPR interview, Obama said the alleged Russian hacking had succeeded in roiling the election because it created “more problems for the Clinton campaign than it had for the Trump campaign.”

“There’s no doubt that it contributed to an atmosphere in which the only focus for weeks at a time, months at a time were Hillary’s e-mails, the Clinton Foundation, political gossip surrounding the DNC,” Obama said.

Obama stopped short of saying the Russian hack was fully responsible for Clinton’s loss, but said he had no doubt it had “some impact” on the race. He also indicated that Putin, who the administration has suggested may have personally directed the effort, was “well aware of my feelings about this, because I spoke to him directly about that.” 

He also said congressional Republicans should be supportive of his administration’s efforts to highlight Russian interference.

“The irony of all this, of course, is that for most of my presidency, there’s been a pretty sizable wing of the Republican Party that has consistently criticised me for not being tough enough on Russia,” he said. 

“Some of those folks during the campaign endorsed Donald Trump, despite the fact that a central tenet of his foreign policy was we shouldn’t be so tough on Russia. And that kind of inconsistency, I think, makes it appear, at least, that their particular position on Russia on any given day depends on what’s politically expedient.”

Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican and vocal Trump supporter, said on Friday that Democrats were “certainly playing politics” with the situation. He told CNBC that he had been denied a request to be briefed by CIA officials on Russia’s involvement, and that he had not seen evidence Russia was responsible.

“I’m assuming that’s true, but who did they hack?” Johnson said. “Was it the DNC? Was it John Podesta? I haven’t seen that evidence.” 

Senator Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on Friday that his panel will continue to investigate Russian hacking of US interests, including the breaches of political groups before the 2016 election. In a statement, the North Carolina Republican said that the committee would hold hearings in the new year, interviewing officials from both the Obama and Trump administrations.

Burr defended “the hard-working, patriotic Americans” working for US intelligence agencies, saying “they check politics at the office door and focus on their mission.” 

Trump’s transition team last week ridiculed the intelligence agencies for their claims of foreign interference in the election, and drew comparisons with the erroneous findings that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction before the US invasion in 2003.

The Kremlin has denied involvement in the e-mail leaks, and spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Tokyo on Friday the US should prove its accusations against Russia.

“Either stop talking about it or finally provide some evidence. Otherwise it looks indecent,” Peskov said while in Japan where Putin is meeting with Japanese leaders.

The administration also faced new criticism from Podesta, who wrote in a Washington Post commentary published Friday that the FBI had been more scrupulous in its investigation of Clinton’s e-mails than it was in investigating the DNC hacks.

“Comparing the FBI’s massive response to the overblown e-mail scandal with the seemingly lackadaisical response to the very real Russian plot to subvert a national election shows that something is deeply broken at the FBI,” Podesta said.