Joseph Marks | Nextgov | December 9, 2016 | 0 Comments

Obama Launches Review of Russian Election Hacking

President Barack Obama during a U.S. counterterrorism strategy speech at MacDill Air Force Base Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016. Chris O'Meara/AP

President Barack Obama ordered the intelligence community this week to draft a report on cyberattacks that plagued the 2016 election and to deliver it before he leaves office, Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said Friday.

The review will also examine hacking of the Obama and John McCain campaigns during the 2008 election cycle and will provide lessons learned for future elections, Schultz said during a daily press briefing.

The report will focus on the broader context of election hacking rather than specific breaches at the Democratic National Committee and elsewhere, Schultz said.

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The report will be shared with Congress and other stakeholders, possibly including state election officials, Schultz said. The administration hopes to make parts of the report public, though large portions are likely to be classified, he said.

“We’re committed to ensuring the integrity of our elections,” Schultz said, adding later that “this is a major priority for the president of the United States.”

Intelligence officials attributed the 2016 breaches to Russia, while the 2008 campaign attacks were widely believed to originate in China.

Obama’s move comes amid intense pressure from Democrats in Congress as well as some Republicans.

It also comes as President-elect Donald Trump continues to steadfastly deny Russia was involved in the 2016 campaign breaches despite the conclusions of U.S. intelligence officials.

Trump has offered no evidence for his assertions but told Time magazine in an interview released this week he believes intelligence officials’ conclusions were politically motivated.

Schultz declined to say whether Obama is rushing the report out during his term because of concerns about Trump’s denial of Russia’s involvement.

“I think the president wanted this done under his watch because he takes it very seriously,” Schultz said. “This is something the president has been monitoring closely for all eight years now."

Ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., urged Obama in a statement to make public as much of the report as possible.  

“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,” Schiff said.

Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., criticized the administration for being too slow to respond to Russian cyber aggression in a Thursday statement.

The administration is “dedicated to delusions of ‘resetting’ relations with Russia” and “ignored pleas by numerous intelligence committee members to take more forceful action against the Kremlin’s aggression,” Nunes said, adding that “after eight years, the administration has suddenly awoken to the threat.”    

Nunes’ statement did not address Trump’s denial of Russian involvement in the breaches.

Legislation introduced Wednesday by Democrats, including Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member on the House oversight committee, would provide $3 million for an independent and bipartisan commission to investigate the breaches.

Top House Democrats also Tuesday urged Obama to provide the full Congress with a classified briefing on Russia-linked cyber breaches of the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta as well as probing of state election systems.

The review the president ordered is unrelated to congressional calls for additional briefings, Schultz said.

Cummings praised Obama’s announcement Friday, expressing hope the report will “inform our efforts here in Congress to conduct a robust, bipartisan investigation, allow all members of Congress to receive additional intelligence on this issue, and hopefully result in the declassification of more information for the American people.”

Republican national security leaders have distanced themselves from Trump’s assertions and denounced Russian hacking. House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, declared there “must be consequences” for nation-state hacks in an address at the conservative Heritage Foundation this week. Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., has made similar pledges.

The DNC breach marks the first time the U.S. intelligence community has publicly attributed a politically motivated cyber breach to Russia, though government officials have anonymously fingered the United States' former Cold War adversary for email breaches at the White House, the State Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The U.S. government has only publicly accused foreign nations of having links to major cyber breaches a handful of times.

The Justice Department indicted five members of China’s People’s Liberation Army for hacking U.S. companies to steal intellectual property and trade secrets in 2014 and indicted seven Iranians who did work for the nation’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps this year for hacking a dam in upstate New York and launching distributed denial-of-service attacks against the U.S. financial sector.

The Treasury Department also applied additional sanctions against North Korea after attributing the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack to the rogue nation in 2015.

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