February 06, 2020

Senate Report Criticizes Response to Russian Meddling and Partly Blames McConnell
WASHINGTON -- Republican congressional leaders' refusal to publicly acknowledge Russian election interference in 2016 contributed to a watered-down response by the Obama administration in the midst of the presidential campaign, a Senate report released Thursday found.Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. and the Senate majority leader, reacted skeptically after receiving an intelligence briefing in September 2016 about the Russian interference, a former Obama administration official said in the report. "You security people should be careful that you're not getting used," McConnell told Lisa Monaco, the White House homeland security adviser under President Barack Obama, at the time, according to the report.The bulk of the report focuses its criticism on the Obama administration and the "heavily politicized environment" that prevented a more forceful response to the Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. But the inclusion of McConnell's skepticism in a report from a Republican-led Senate committee could give the accusations new life.Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden, have previously accused McConnell of stopping the Obama administration from speaking out more forcefully against Russian interference. McConnell has long denied those allegations, pointing to a bipartisan letter that congressional leaders released in late September 2016.The response to Russia's meddling presented a difficult political calculus for McConnell: A public acknowledgment before the election might have deterred Moscow and improved voters' trust in the outcome, but none of that was assured, and it also could have cost Republicans the White House.According to the report, numerous Obama administration officials said some members of Congress at the September 2016 briefing "resisted the administration request that a bipartisan statement be made regarding Russia being responsible for interference activities." It was at that briefing where McConnell told Monaco that she should be careful with the intelligence.The full report from the committee, led by Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., wavers on the effect any high-level U.S. government warning would have had on Russia's campaign of election sabotage. The Kremlin's operations continued even as the Obama administration began discussing them publicly, Senate investigators found."After the warnings, Russia continued its cyberactivity to include further public dissemination of stolen emails, clandestine social media-based influence operations, and penetration of state voting infrastructure through Election Day 2016," the report said.The committee said that the Obama administration was worried that its warnings to Russia could potentially undermine voters' confidence in the election, which would itself help the Russian effort. The government was also hampered by what it did not know, including the full extent of the Russian ability to manipulate election systems.The report also contained some new details about the Obama administration's efforts to halt the Russian interference campaign. The administration delivered five direct warnings to "various levels of the Russian government," including messages from Obama to President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the report said.Obama warned Putin in a note that "the kind of consequences that he could anticipate would be powerfully impactful to their economy and far exceed anything that he had seen to date," the report said, citing an interview with Susan E. Rice, Obama's national security adviser at the time.Some of the material in the report is redacted, including the timing of the first warning that many in the administration received, in the form of briefings from the CIA director at the time, John O. Brennan.Even as they presented the report's findings as bipartisan, Democrats and Republicans on the committee highlighted the still-acrimonious partisan divide over the 2016 campaign in their responses.Burr aimed his criticism at the Obama administration, accusing officials of sharing too little information inside the government."Frozen by 'paralysis of analysis,' hamstrung by constraints both real and perceived, Obama officials debated courses of action without truly taking one," Burr said.Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the committee, blamed partisan politics in part for the flawed response in 2016 and warned that they are still a barrier to fighting Russia's continuing interference in U.S. politics."I am particularly concerned, however, that a legitimate fear raised by the Obama administration -- that warning the public of the Russian attack could backfire politically -- is still present in our hyperpartisan environment," Warner said.In a supplement to the report, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the failure in the midst of the campaign to make a "bipartisan public acknowledgment of the ongoing attack by Russia" had serious implications.Such a statement, Wyden wrote, might have prompted the news media to give more context in their reporting of disclosures by WikiLeaks about the Clinton campaign, most importantly noting "their release was part of a Russian influence campaign" designed to assist Trump, then the Republican presidential nominee."An acknowledgment of Russian influence operations, particularly operations intended to help Donald Trump, would have reflected poorly on the candidate and his campaign," Wyden wrote. "But that should not have been a reason for the administration and members of Congress to withhold from the public warning of an ongoing attack by a foreign adversary."The committee report includes a range of recommendations to ensure the government is better prepared to react to a foreign influence campaign in future elections. Legislation enacted last year requires the director of national intelligence to present regular assessments of such threats before elections, the report noted.Senators also called for the executive branch to be more forthcoming with the public, particularly if foreign influence operations -- called "active measures" by the Russians -- are underway."In the event that such a campaign is detected, the public should be informed as soon as possible, with a clear and succinct statement of the threat, even if the information is incomplete," the report said.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2020 The New York Times Company
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