Neutrality-Wary Obama Kept Public in Dark on Russia Threat, Panel Finds

WASHINGTON (CN) – In an effort to keep above the fray in the 2016 presidential election, former President Barack Obama failed to take actions that would have warned the public about the threat of Russian interference, a bipartisan report found Thursday.

Acknowledging Obama’s eagerness to appear neutral, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found: “The U.S. government was not well-postured to counter Russian election interference activity with a full range of readily-available policy options.”

Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a leadership summit in New Delhi, India, on Dec. 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

Largely agreeing with this assessment in a minority report, Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., added that his Republican colleagues papered over their party’s own role in Obama’s reticence.

“In 2016, the Obama administration withheld information from the congressional intelligence committees, preventing members from conducting oversight, developing policy responses, or advocating for transparency with the public,” Wyden acknowledged.

“In addition, the so-called ‘Gang of Eight’ briefings did not involve formal recordkeeping,” the Oregon Democrat continued, referring to the eight leaders in the House and Senate who secretly meet about national security matters without voting. “As a result, the committee’s report denies the American public an opportunity for historical accountability—for the refusal of some members to inform the public about Russian interference and for public statements denying the existence of intelligence indicating that Russia was seeking to help Donald Trump.”

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia report found that the Kremlin engaged in a disinformation campaign to influence the election with an aim of helping Trump, whose campaign was eager to receive the boost. The Mueller report stopped short of finding criminal coordination or conspiracy in this effort.

Though Trump has denied the Russian government’s interference—offering a debunked conspiracy theory of Ukrainian meddling in its place—the bipartisan Senate report offers no such counternarrative.

Taking Russia’s effort as a given, the bipartisan committee empathized with Obama’s reluctance to raise the alarm but ultimately found those actions misplaced.

“The committee found that decisions to limit and delay the information flow regarding the 2016 Russian active measures campaign, while understandable, inadvertently constrained the administration’s ability to respond,” the report states.

Though the report is heavily redacted, its recommendations are fully public: strengthen partnerships, support cyber-norms, prepare for the next attack, integrate responses to cyber-incidents, prioritize collection on information warfare, increase information-sharing on foreign influence efforts and clarify roles within the intelligence community.

GOP Senators Tom Cotton, John Cornyn and Ben Sasse wrote separately to slam the “Obama administration’s inept response to Russia’s persistent and complex campaign to influence and interfere in the most recent U.S. presidential election.”

“While we understand some of the constraints by which the administration felt bound in the lead-up to the election, these constraints did not inhibit or preclude a strong response from Washington,” they wrote.

Wyden described that tutting from Republican senators as disingenuous.

“The immediate result of the Republican refusal to publicly acknowledge Russian interference was the watered-down letter to the president of the National Association of State Election Directors on September 28, 2016,” Wyden noted. “That letter cited only ‘malefactors,’ a word that in no way conveyed the threat posed by a sophisticated nation state adversary like Russia. The letter, which also opposed the designation of election systems as critical infrastructure, failed to prompt a response proportional to the seriousness of the threat.”

Wyden imagined how Russia’s attack may have turned out differently with proper public notice.

“Members could have developed positions, individually, with other members, or perhaps even as a Committee,” he said. “Members could also have weighed in on what information should be downgraded or declassified, for release to the full Congress, state and local officials, and the public.”

“But none of that happened,” he added. “Instead, at a moment when the country’s democracy was under direct attack and the administration was hoping for support from Congress, it refused to engage the congressional intelligence committees.”

The U.S. intelligence community has warned that attempts at election interference remain ongoing.

According to news reports, Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that once counted Hunter Biden as a board member, was hacked by the Russian government. It remains unclear what, if anything, was extracted from the company’s servers.

As a defense against impeachment, Trump and his loyalists have vilified Burisma to support a theory that Joe Biden inappropriately used his power to protect that company when he was vice president, a claim that House Intelligence Committee witnesses called baseless.

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