(CN) – President Barack Obama on Thursday struck back at Russia over its trying to influence the 2016 presidential election, imposing sanctions on Russian’s two main intelligence agencies and tossing 35 Russian intelligence officials and operatives out of the country.
Those subject to expulsion from the U.S. include officials suspected of overseeing hacks of a Democratic National Committee server and the email accounts of several Democratic operatives working with the campaign of Hillary Clinton.
In a statement, President Barack Obama said Thursday’s actions came after repeated private and public warnings to the Russian government, and he characterized them as, “a necessary and appropriate response to efforts to harm U.S. interests in violation of established international norms of behavior.”
“All Americans should be alarmed by Russia’s actions,” he said. “These data theft and disclosure activities could only have been directed by the highest levels of the Russian government. Moreover, our diplomats have experienced an unacceptable level of harassment in Moscow by Russian security services and police over the last year. Such activities have consequences.”
The sanctions announced Thursday focus on nine entities and several individuals, including two Russian intelligence services, the Main Intelligence Directorate (a.k.a. Glavnoe Razvedyvatel’noe Upravlenie) and the Federal Security Service (a.k.a. Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti), four GRU officers, and three companies that the White House says provided material support for the hacking operations.
According to the White House, the GRU is involved in external collection using human intelligence officers and a variety of technical tools, and is designated for tampering, altering, or causing a misappropriation of information with the purpose or effect of interfering with the 2016 U.S. election processes.
It says the FSB assisted in those activities.
The three other entities subject to the sanctions are Russia’s Special Technology Center, Zorsecurity, and the Autonomous Noncommercial Organization, all of whom the administration says provided technical support for the hacks.
Sanctioned individuals include Igor Valentinovich Korobov, the current chief of the GRU; Sergey Aleksandrovich Gizunov, the agency’s deputy chief ; and Igor Olegovich Kostyukov and Vladimir Stepanovich Alexseyev, both first deputy chiefs of the organization.
In addition, the Treasury Department is designating two Russian individuals, Evgeniy Bogachev and Aleksey Belan for using cyber-enabled means to cause misappropriation of funds and personal identifying information.
During a conference call with reporters after the president’s announcement, a senior administrative official said “there is no debate in the U.S. administration about the fact, and it is a fact, that Russia interfered in our democratic election.”
“We’ve established that clearly to our satisfaction,” the official said, speaking on background. “I would never expect Russia to come out with their hands up and acknowledge what they did. They don’t do that. They still deny that they are intervening in eastern Ukraine and frankly I’d say to journalists, let’s look at what they say and what they do.
“This is a country that has intervened in other sovereign countries and denied that they did it, even though everybody could see that they were doing it, with respect to Ukraine. That has bombed civilians in Syria while denying that they were doing it. So we don’t see this as a he said she said situation, we see this as there are facts and there are things that Russia says,” the official said.
The White House defended the timing of the sanctions on Thursday, telling reporters that sanctions take time to prepare and noting intelligence agencies publically accused Russia of interference before the election.
Some of the sanctions are addressing a pattern of harassment against U.S. diplomats in Russia “unprecedented in the post-Cold War era,” which the administration said ties into the country’s attempts to influence the election. These include “arbitrary” police stops, physical assault and preventing improvements to make a diplomatic facility in St. Petersburg safer, the administration said.
As part of these efforts the State Department will bar Russian officials from two diplomatic recreational facilities, one in Maryland and one in New York, that also served an intelligence purpose.
Because the sanctions came in the form of executive actions, President-elect Donald Trump, who has steadfastly denied that Russia was behind the hacks, could potentially allow the people expelled from the country back in, senior administration officials said.
“These are executive actions, so if a future president decided that he wanted to allow in a large tranche of Russian intelligence agents, presumably the future president could invite that action,” one explained. “We think it would be inadvisable.”
The officials emphasized that there is no evidence Russia will stop interfering in U.S. elections in the future, making the sanctions announced Thursday critical to provide a strong stance going forward.
“There has to be a cost and a consequence for what Russia has done,” an official said. “It is an extraordinary step for them to interfere in the democratic process here in the United States of America and there needs to be a price for that. They need to be held accountable for that and we believe that it should be of concern to all Americans, as the president said in his statement and the members of Congress from both parties because this is an attack on our democratic system and we are responding in kind.”
In addition to the sanctions, the Department of Homeland Security released a report detailing the operation, which it is calling Grizzly Steppe, showing the technical indicators that identify Russia’s involvement in the hacks.
The report says Russia used a “spearphishing ” campaign that used legitimate domain names to host maleware that was sent via email to more than 1,000 people, some of whom were government employees. This allowed the country to twice gain access to a political party’s systems, once in summer 2015 and once in spring 2016, according to the report.
In one instance, a person clicking on links to malware-infected attachments, while another email attempted to trick people into changing their passwords through a fake web domain.
The Wikileaks dump of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s emails included a message fitting this description.
The agency has also shared two samples of malware Russia used to gain access to political organizations in order to allow companies that produce antivirus technology to build defenses against such attacks, a senior administration official said Thursday.
The 13-page report also lists strategies to help prevent against similar intrusions in the future.
The president emphasized that the actions taken Thursday are not the end of the U.S. response to Russia’s activities.
“We will continue to take a variety of actions at a time and place of our choosing, some of which will not be publicized,” he said. “In addition to holding Russia accountable for what it has done, the United States and friends and allies around the world must work together to oppose Russia’s efforts to undermine established international norms of behavior, and interfere with democratic governance.”
The president said the White House will be providing a report to Congress in a matter of days detailing Russia’s efforts to interfere not only with the 2016 election, but in other years as well.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a lukewarm response to the sanctions announcement Thursday afternoon, criticizing the Obama administration’s foreign policy in general and its dealing with Russia specifically, before conceding that the sanctions are “a good initial step, however late in coming.”
“The Russians are not our friends. And clearly the Obama administration has not yet dissuaded them from attempting to breach our cybersecurity systems, or harass our diplomats in Moscow,” McConnell said. “As the next Congress reviews Russian actions against networks associated with the U.S. election, we must also work to ensure that any attack against the United States is met with an overwhelming response.”