Too much analysis hamstrung the Obama administration’s efforts to effectively respond to Russian hacking during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, according to a bipartisan report released Thursday by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
“The U.S. Government was not well-postured to counter Russian election interference activity with a full range of readily-available policy options,” the panel wrote in the report.
The Obama administration issued “high-level warnings of potential retaliation,” but the empty threats did little to dissuade Moscow, according to the 54-page report.
Instead, the Kremlin responded to the warnings by expanding Russian cyberactivity to include “public dissemination of stolen emails, clandestine social media-based influence operations and penetration of state voting infrastructure through Election Day 2016.”
Concerns that any action by the U.S. government would appear as if President Obama was acting politically on behalf of one candidate tempered the administration’s response.
Senators also dinged the Obama administration for viewing Russia’s disinformation campaigns and efforts to penetrate the election infrastructure in separate threats. The bifurcated approach hindered the administration’s ability to see the complete threat from Russia, the panel said.
The report also found that the administration was hobbled by political partisanship from lawmakers. It details pushback from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, on issuing a bipartisan statement in 2016 about Russian efforts.
Mr. McConnell reportedly did not trust the intelligence conclusions about Russia’s meddling attempts and warned Homeland Security adviser Lisa Monaco to “be careful you’re not being used.”
The document is the third installment of what is scheduled to be five volumes of conclusions. The panel launched its investigation in January 2017 and has released two other reports since then.
“After discovering the existence if not the full scope, of Russia’s election interference efforts in late-2016, the Obama administration struggled to determine the appropriate response,” said Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican.
“Frozen by ‘paralysis of analysis,’ hamstrung by constraints both real and perceived, Obama officials debated courses of action without truly taking one,” Mr. Burr said.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said he hopes the report’s lessons resonate with lawmakers, national security experts and the American public.
“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. “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.”
The committee recommended presidents and other candidates should separate themselves from political considerations when handling issues related to foreign election influence.
Lawmakers also called on the executive branch to develop “a range of standing response options that can be rapidly executed” to combat an election attack.
In a separate report, also released Thursday, the Government Accountability Office concluded the Department of Homeland Security is not prepared to meet election security challenges ahead of the 2020 election.
DHS’s Cybersecurity Infrastructure and Security Agency (CISA) has not developed plans to address election security concerns, the report concluded.
GAO said there is a “lack of clarity” regarding the CISA’s incident response capabilities and an inability to move quickly.
“Although CISA officials said the challenges identified in the reviews have informed their strategic and operational planning, without finalized plans it is unknown whether CISA will address these challenges,” the report said.
The GAO urged CISA to finalize an election security plan ahead of the election.