If there’s a lesson to be learned from partisanship, it’s that it can thwart government’s efforts to get to the bottom of and respond to a nation-state attack as it did in 2016 when heated politics thwarted the Obama administration’s response to Russia’s meddling in the presidential election, the Senate Intelligence Committee found.
“The Committee found that the administration was constrained in its response to Russian meddling by the heavily politicized environment,” the committee found in the third report in its five-part series on the interference.
While the U.S. is more aware of the threats posed by Russia and is in a better position to rebuff and respond, the country is more divided politically than it was just four years ago, and that concerns committee co-chairman Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.
"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 hyper-partisan environment," committee Warner said in a release.
President Trump has long expressed skepticism that Russia was behind a hack of the DNC that led to a steady leak of stolen emails meant damage Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and repeatedly branded a subsequent probe led by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller that found Russia tried to influence the election in Trump’s favor as a hoax and a witch hunt. The political climate has grown even more heated after the president’s impeachment by the House in December and Senate acquittal last week.
The Intelligence Committee report also found that the Obama administration “was not well-postured” to counter Russia’s interference in the election, lacking policy options in its arsenal to deal with the nation-state’s actions. Officials were further hampered by concerns that by warning the public of interference, it would undermine confidence in the election and help Russia accomplish its goals.
The report also cited delays in attribution, the uncertainty of Russia’s capability to “target and manipulate election systems,” the challenge of addressing WikiLeaks, which published the emails stolen from the Democrats and the limited resources and time constraints in developing policy options to deal with the interference as affecting the administration’s ability to respond.
The government’s “bifurcated approach” to handling “the cyber and geopolitical aspects of the Russian active measures campaign” until August 2016 “may have prevented the administration from seeing a more complete view of the threat,” thereby limiting response, the committee found.
"Frozen by 'paralysis of analysis,' hamstrung by constraints both real and perceived, Obama officials debated courses of action without truly taking one," Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., said in a release. “Many of their concerns were understandable, including the fear that warning the public of the election threat would only alarm the American people and accomplish Russia’s goal of undermining faith in our democratic institutions.”
But “in navigating those valid concerns,” administration “officials made decisions that limited their options, including preventing internal information-sharing and siloing cyber and geopolitical threats,” said Burr.
The committee chairman believes that the U.S. is better positioned “to identify foreign interference efforts and address vulnerabilities Russia and other hostile foreign actors may seek to exploit,” provided the company builds on the lessons learned in the aftermath of the 2016 election.
Warner urged lawmakers and the public to put aside partisan differences to combat foreign interference in elections. “All Americans, particularly those of us in government and public office, must work together to push back on foreign interference in our elections without regard for partisan advantage,” he said.