WASHINGTON — The Obama administration was ill-prepared to handle and failed to respond effectively to Russian interference during the 2016 election, according to a bipartisan congressional report released Thursday. It said officials feared getting caught up in a heavily politicized environment and undermining public confidence in the electoral process.
The Senate Intelligence Committee's report said the U.S. government was “not well-postured” to counter Russian election interference and that Russia's cyberactivities did not cease despite high-level warnings of potential retaliation. The report noted that some Republicans in 2016 were wary of releasing information on the interference.
Committee members said they hoped lessons learned from 2016 will better position the U.S. to foil another round of potential interference, as the nation's intelligence chiefs warn that Russia, China, Iran and North Korea remain a threat. They called on elected officials to put aside politics when it comes to countering future threats to U.S. elections.
Republicans and Democrats on the the committee agreed on the broader conclusions of the report, a rare show of bipartisan unity a day after President Donald Trump was acquitted in a highly contentious and fractious impeachment trial. But some members on both sides submitted "additional views," including five Republicans who were more sharply critical of the Obama administration's actions.
In 2016, Russia carried out a “ sweeping and systematic ” effort to interfere in U.S. elections through disinformation on social media, stolen campaign emails and attacks on voting systems. U.S. officials have made advances in trying to prevent similar attacks from undermining the 2020 vote, but the potential threats have increased and some old problems such as outdated and vulnerable voting machines have not been fully addressed.
Trump has doubted intelligence agencies' findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 vote and said he was open to receiving information on political rivals from foreign governments. That raised concerns about his willingness to counter threats to this year's vote.
The committee recommended that elected officials and candidates should use “the absolute greatest amount of restraint and caution" before calling into question the validity of an election. As he campaigned in 2016, Trump said the election was rigged against him. And as problems came to light with Monday's Iowa Democratic caucuses, Trump and his supporters sent tweets with the hashtag “RiggedElection.”
The committee noted most Obama administration officials interviewed in the investigation said they had first learned about the Russian operation to steal emails from the Democratic National Committee from the media. The initial reaction of administration officials and intelligence agencies was that Russia's activity “fell within the bounds of traditional espionage” and was not understood at that point to be part of a broader campaign, according to the report.
“Frozen by ‘paralysis of analysis,’ hamstrung by constraints both real and perceived, Obama officials debated courses of action without truly taking one,” said the committee chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.
The top Democrat on the committee, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, said in a statement that there were many flaws with the U.S. response to the 2016 attack, “but it’s worth noting that many of those were due to problems with our own system – problems that can and should be corrected." He said he was particularly concerned that the fear raised by the Obama administration, that warning the public of a foreign attack could backfire politically, “is still present in our hyper-partisan environment.”
Suzanne Spaulding, a top homeland security official in the Obama administration, said the report's findings largely tracked with her understanding of events in 2016.
“There is certainly room for criticism in the way the administration responded,” Spaulding said. “It’s a fair criticism, certainly fair to say that we did not have the focus on possible Russian interference in our election that we came to have later in the year."
Spaulding added she supported the recommendation of more disclosure removed of political considerations.
“In hindsight, I think we should have gotten that information out more quickly to the American public,” Spaulding said.
Five of the Republican senators on the committee wrote in an addendum that the report “exposes in great detail 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.” They wrote that concerns about undermining confidence in the election “do not excuse the administration's failures."
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., submitted an additional view that was also critical of the Obama administration, charging that officials did not share enough information with Congress at the time. Wyden wrote that lawmakers still don't have access to important records and documents, and that the report "lacks critical information, leaving the American people in the dark about key events leading up to the 2016 election.”
The report also detailed concerns among Republicans in Congress about the effect of publicly acknowledging the interference. It said that several Obama administration officials testified in closed-door interviews that some lawmakers resisted an administration request for a bipartisan statement on Russia’s election meddling.
One of those officials, Lisa Monaco, the former assistant to the president for homeland security and counter terrorism, said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., questioned the intelligence surrounding the Russian intervention.
Monaco quoted McConnell as saying, "you security people should be careful that you're not getting used," which the report says Monaco interpreted as suggestive that the intelligence might have been inflated for partisan purposes. It also quotes Burr at the time describing McConnell’s apprehension that a bipartisan letter could contribute to Russia’s efforts in creating concerns about the U.S. election process.
The report is the third in a series that the panel is releasing as part of its probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, an investigation that is now in its fourth year. Burr has said that the panel is working methodically to review what happened, and has worked to keep its conclusions bipartisan — a contrast to a House GOP report released in early 2018 that had no Democratic support.
Cassidy reported from Atlanta.