President Barack Obama has ordered a “deep dive” into the cyberattacks that plagued this year’s election, the White House said Friday.
Obama has asked the intelligence community to deliver its final report before he leaves office.
The review will put the spate of hacks — which officials have blamed on Russia — “in a greater context” by framing them against the “malicious cyber activity” that may have occurred around the edges of the 2008 and 2012 president elections, said White House principal deputy press secretary Eric Schultz at a briefing.
“This will be a review that is broad and deep at the same time,” he added.
The announcement follows repeated demands from congressional Democrats for more information about the digital assault that destabilized the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign through much of the election. Schultz insisted the review was “unrelated” to these requests, however.
At a Friday morning event, Lisa Monaco, Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, explained that the country had “crossed into a new threshold.”
“It is incumbent upon us to take stock of that, to review, to conduct some after-action, to understand what this means, what has happened and to impart those lessons learned,” she said at a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor.
It’s not clear how much of the report will be made public, or what actions it might lead to, a potential point of irritation for lawmakers who have urged the Obama administration to publicly strike back against Russia and to declassify more information about the election-season hacks.
Schultz vowed to “make public as much as we can.”
“Obviously, you can imagine a report like this is gonna contain highly, you know, sensitive and even classified information,” he added, noting that Congress and “relevant stakeholders,” such as state election officials, would be briefed on the findings.
But Schultz did say the review would not spare any country that has digitally meddled in a U.S. election.
In 2008, the campaigns for both Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Obama were bombarded by suspected Chinese hackers, according to U.S. intelligence officials. The digital intruders were reportedly after internal policy papers and the emails of top advisers.
And in 2012, Gawker reported that hackers had broken into Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s personal Hotmail account after correctly answering his backup security question: “What is your favorite pet?”
“We will be looking at all foreign actors and any attempt to interfere with the elections,” Schultz said.
The Obama administration in early October accused the Russian government of directing a digital campaign to disrupt the U.S. election. As part of this effort, U.S. officials said Moscow-backed hackers infiltrated the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other political organizations.
Emails and documents from some of these groups ended up leaking online through WikiLeaks and other suspicious websites and hackers that researchers alleged were fronts for Russian intelligence services.
Hackers reportedly linked to Russia also breached the personal email accounts of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, and several Democratic staffers.
At Friday’s event, Monaco struck an ominous tone about internet-related dangers, calling them among the most significant national security issues facing the new administration. President-elect Donald Trump’s team will “inherit a rapidly growing threat in this space across all dimensions,” she said, including intrusions from both “hacktivists” and “criminal actors.”
Trump, however, has repeatedly rejected the intelligence community’s conclusion about the election-related cyberattacks, arguing that the allegations were politically motivated.
The president-elect’s ongoing denial of Russian involvement may have, in part, spurred Obama to act. Administration officials told NBC News that “Obama is concerned that Russia will go unpunished for the behavior unless he acts.”
Obama also moved after a months-long Capitol Hill pressure campaign.
In September, Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and her House counterpart, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), put out a statement accusing Moscow of trying to “influence the U.S. election” with the breaches, weeks before the administration made similar allegations.
The chorus for action ebbed and flowed over the last few months, with Democrats calling on GOP congressional leaders to launch various probes into the Kremlin’s involvement and on the White House to share with the public how it reached its conclusion.
But the campaign surged back into the spotlight this week, when House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and the highest-ranking Democrats on several national security-focused House committees sent a letter to Obama asking for administration officials to brief all members of Congress on Russian efforts to influence the election.
A spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Friday said the White House review “complements the efforts of House Democrats,” which also includes a bill from Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) that would create an independent commission to study the election hacks.
Hoyer called for “a complete accounting of what Russia or Russian-backed entities did.”
“The American people deserve to know the extent to which a foreign adversary meddled in our democracy,” he added.
Cummings said he hopes the upcoming report will help Congress investigate the issue itself and “allow all members of Congress to receive additional intelligence.”
“I hope we can get to the bottom of it … as soon as possible,” said Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
In addition to the Democratic pressure campaign, several Republican committee and subcommittee chairmen have promised to hold hearings on the cyberattacks.
The Washington Post reported Thursday night that Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) was readying his own investigation, “working closely” with Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Burr on Friday said his committee “has been, and remains, concerned about Russia’s actions.”
Democrats mostly praised the White House on Friday as details of the review emerged, but reiterated calls for Congress to be kept in the loop.
Schiff said he was “pleased,” but called on the White House to “declassify as much of it as possible, while protecting our sources and methods, and make it available to the public.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a vocal privacy advocate on the Intelligence Committee who has pressed the administration to release more details about the alleged Russian hacking, echoed Schiff’s call.
“This is good news,” he said in a statement. “Declassifying and releasing information about the Russian government and the US election, and doing so quickly, must be a priority.”
Schiff wants the White House to go further.
“More than that, the administration must begin to take steps to respond forcefully to this blatant cyber meddling, and work with our allies in Europe who have been targets of similar attacks to impose costs on the Kremlin,” Schiff added. “If we do not, we can expect to see a lot more of this in the near future.”
If Obama doesn’t act, Democrats are hoping the report will put pressure on the Trump administration to stand up to Russia.
“President-elect Trump, who openly encouraged foreign hackers to target his political opponent in the campaign, has a responsibility to the American people to confront any foreign government’s efforts to undermine American democracy,” Pelosi said in a statement.
But some Republicans were not as charitable to the White House.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) chided the president for having “suddenly awoken to the threat” posed by Moscow.
“As I’ve said many times, the intelligence community has repeatedly failed to anticipate Putin’s hostile actions,” Nunes said.
Burr agreed that his panel has always fed the White House the “necessary” intelligence information.
“What our nation’s leaders do with that information, and how they respond to those threats and challenges, is largely the responsibility of other committees,” he said.
Nolan McCaskill contributed to this report.
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