Obama should have confronted Russians on hacking, Democratic House intel leader says

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
President Barack Obama at a news conference in December. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee Wednesday criticized the Obama administration for not responding more aggressively to Russia’s election hacks last year as well as other state-sponsored cyberattacks, saying its failure to do so may have sent a message they were “essentially a penalty-free enterprise.”

Adam Schiff’s surprisingly sharp critique of the Obama administration came during a breakfast meeting with reporters in which he signaled that the House committee — like its Senate counterpart — plans to subpoena documents from Michael Flynn and his businesses. The former Trump White House national security adviser has refused requests for the documents, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

“We will be following up with subpoenas,” said Schiff. “We need to use whatever compulsory mechanisms are necessary to get the information that he possesses.” As for granting him immunity in exchange for his cooperation, as his lawyer has requested, Schiff said the committee would require a “proffer” detailing what Flynn was prepared to say, although he added, “You can certainly count me as very skeptical that we will get to that point.”

Schiff was unusually blunt when asked about how the Obama White House responded to the intelligence it first received last summer that Russian intelligence services were engaged in a wide ranging effort to interfere with the U.S. election through cyberattacks.

The issue took on new significance this week after former CIA director John Brennan testified Tuesday that in a phone call last August he warned his Russian spymaster counterpart, FSB director Alexander Bortnikov, to cut the attacks out — a warning that was apparently ignored.

Former CIA Director John Brennan testifies on Tuesday. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

“Do you have any regrets about how President Obama handled the publicizing of Russian interference in the election before Election Day?” Schiff was asked. “Should he have been more forceful in his public comments?”

“Yes and yes,” Schiff responded. He noted that, based on classified briefings they had received, he and California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, ranking minority member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued a joint statement last September saying that the Russians were making a “serious and concerted effort to influence the U.S. election” and that such efforts “could come only from very senior levels of the Russian government.”

But, Schiff added, “it was our strong preference it not come from us” but from the Obama administration. Instead, the administration issued a written statement on Oct. 7 that “was not accompanied by any action in the sense of the imposition of sanctions. What I was urging at the time was that first, that the administration make the attribution [that the Russians were behind the election hacks], and second, that once they did they immediately begin discussions with Europe about another round of sanctions on Russia. Because they were interfering with our elections, but they were also interfering in Europe. And what gets the Russians’ attention is economic pressure.”

Schiff added, “There’s a reason why the elimination of Russia sanctions is at the top of the Russian wish list. Anything that diminishes their economy, anything that could result in popular protests in Russia is what concerns Putin the most. His cratering economy is probably his greatest fear.”

On Dec. 29, the Obama administration finally did impose a new round of sanctions over the Russian hack. But Schiff made it clear he viewed those as too little, too late. “The sanctions weren’t imposed indeed until well after the  election and very late in the final weeks of the Obama administration,” said Schiff.

House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff, D-Calif. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Schiff said he understood the reasons the Obama White House was reluctant to respond more aggressively: Officials were concerned about it being perceived as too political and would have an impact on the election as well as concerns that it would play into a “narrative” that the voting was rigged. Privately, former Obama administration officials have also indicated their reluctance to act was based in large part on their assumption that Hillary Clinton was going to win the election and that she would then deal with the issue. “They thought she was going to win, so they were willing to kick the can down the road,” one U.S. official told NBC News last December.

“But I didn’t think that was the right decision at the time, and I think it’s even more clear now that it wasn’t,” said Schiff. In fact, Schiff added, subsequent events — such as alleged Russian interference in the recent French elections — have only vindicated his view.

“So I’ll go one step further,” Schiff added. “I was urging the administration at the time of the North Korea hack on Sony that it needed to do more to establish a deterrent. And I think the failure to act more aggressively with any of these cyberattacks may have sent a very unintended message that this was essentially a penalty-free enterprise.”

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