Before President Obama leaves office next month, U.S. intelligence agencies have been tasked with completing a full review of all cyberattacks that have targeted the American presidential election process since 2008.
Such a wide-ranging review is expected to establish a public record of attempts to meddle in the democratic process before President-elect Donald Trump is sworn into office. The real estate mogul has expressed skepticism over the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia was involved in this year’s election hacks.
White House officials announced the review Friday, calling it “a major priority” for the president but insisting the effort is not intended to challenge the outcome of this year’s elections.
“We are not calling into question the election results,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.
The announcement comes after top U.S. intelligence officials blamed the Kremlin for directing a series of hacks amid the presidential election and as Democratic and Republican lawmakers have stepped up calls for a federal probe into the degree to which Russian hackers sought to interfere in the election.
Lisa Monaco, a White House counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, initially announced at an event Friday that the review would look at “what happened during the 2016 election process.”
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But Mr. Schultz later said the review would encompass presidential election cycles spanning back to 2008 — when Mr. Obama was first elected to office. U.S. officials previously have attributed to the Chinese government election-related cyberattacks on the 2008 campaigns of Mr. Obama and Sen. John McCain.
“What the president asked for is a review to look at malicious cyber activity timed to our presidential election cycle,” Mr. Schultz said. “It will be broader than just looking at this past election.”
The president directed the review to be complete before he leaves office on Jan. 20. The short deadline ensures that the review will be completed before the inauguration of Mr. Trump — who has repeated his doubts that Russia was behind this year’s prominent hacks.
“I don’t believe they interfered. That became a laughing point, not a talking point, a laughing point. Any time I do something, they say, ‘Oh, Russia interfered,’” Mr. Trump told Time magazine. “It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.”
For some Democrats, Mr. Trump’s skepticism underscores the need to complete a review before his administration takes over.
“Given President-elect Trump’s disturbing refusal to listen to our intelligence community and accept that the hacking was orchestrated by the Kremlin, there is an added urgency to the need for a thorough review before President Obama leaves office next month,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee.
Top U.S. intelligence and homeland security officials accused the Kremlin in October of directing the hack of the Democratic National Committee, which resulted in the embarrassing publication of internal communications among top Democrats on WikiLeaks.
Interim DNC chair Donna Brazile praised the decision to launch the review, saying it would help with understanding how the hack happened and efforts to prevent it from recurring. Regardless of political affiliation, all Americans should be concerned by the Russian’s meddling, she said.
“National security should not and must not be a partisan issue,” Ms. Brazile said.
Once complete, it’s unclear how much of the review will be made public.
Mr. Schultz noted that the review will likely include classified information that cannot be disclosed publicly, but added that officials hope to be able to brief members of Congress and other stakeholders, such as local elections officials on the findings, and intend to release as much to the public as possible.
“We are committed to ensuring the integrity of our elections,” Mr. Schultz said. “This report will dig into this pattern of malicious cyber activity timed to our elections, take stock of our defensive capabilities, and capture lessons learned to make sure we brief members of Congress and stake holders as appropriate.”
Though malicious cyberattacks during an election cycle are not new, Ms. Monaco said “a new threshold” may have been crossed this year.
“It is incumbent upon us to take stock of that, to review, to conduct some after-action, to understand what has happened and to impart those lessons learned,” she said at an event hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
Since intelligence officials first laid blame on Russia for this year’s hacking efforts, lawmakers have pushed for more information about the hacks to be made public.
House Democrats on Wednesday introduced legislation that would establish a 12-member bipartisan, independent commission to investigate attempts by the Russian government “to use electronic means to influence, interfere with, or sow distrust in this year’s U.S. elections.” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, has said he plans to lead an inquiry into Russia’s hacking efforts through his leadership role on two subcommittees.