There is a debate within the Obama administration over whether to publicly blame Russia for the hack of the Democratic National Committee or to wait for the FBI to complete its investigation — a delay that has frustrated some lawmakers and national security officials.
The intelligence community has high confidence that Russian intelligence services hacked the Democratic National Committee but does not have the same level of confidence that Russia then leaked stolen committee emails to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, several administration officials said. The release of the embarrassing material on the eve of the Democratic convention has been seen by some officials as an attempt to meddle in the U.S. presidential election.
“I really think we’ve reached the point where there ought to be a public accounting for what’s going on,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, who has been briefed on the matter. “The American people have the right to know if a foreign power is trying to influence their elections.”
White House officials and FBI Director James B. Comey have repeatedly said that they do not want to get ahead of the investigation, which covers suspected Russian hacks and attempted hacks of a variety of political organizations and state election systems. “Policy decisions regarding public attribution for these intrusions are contingent on the results of that investigation,” one senior administration official said in a statement.
The White House’s and some Cabinet officials’ insistence on awaiting the probe’s results has frustrated some officials at the FBI, the Justice Department and within the intelligence community, who favor holding Moscow accountable. The White House’s continued requests for more evidence, said one official, is “to delay — purposely delay” a public attribution.
The FBI, White House, Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a member of the Homeland Security committee, said President Obama should publicly name Russia and do so before the November election. A failure to do so will only encourage further cyber intrusions and meddling in the U.S. election, he said.
“If the Obama administration has a reason for not clearly attributing these hacks to Russia, it contradicts their own cyber strategy,” Sasse said. “If they’re silent because it would invite response, that suggests that we’re operating from a position of weakness — in other words, we know that we need to aggressively deter cyberattacks, but we are too vulnerable to do it. Neither scenario is reassuring.”
Even as the administration awaits the FBI results, consideration has begun at the staff levels of potential ways the United States might respond. Options in the mix include the first use of a program to impose economic sanctions to deter significant network attacks or intrusions. Created last year by executive order, it permits the sanctioning of individuals overseas linked to malicious cyber acts that threatened the national security or foreign policy of the United States.
“Clearly trying to surreptitiously influence U.S. elections would be a pretty bold move,” said a second administration official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the topic’s sensitivity. So sanctions might be an appropriate response, the official said.
The internal debate is rife with political and diplomatic concerns, including a fear that acting before November might appear unduly partisan — an effort to tip the balance toward Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said Thursday that “it’s probably unlikely” that Russia is trying to interfere in the U.S. election. “I think maybe the Democrats are putting that out — who knows,” he told Larry King on RT America, a Kremlin-funded network.
U.S. intelligence agencies are also wary that a public attribution might disclose sources and methods, some officials said. However, one national security official noted, “that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to hold [the Russians] accountable. They may just want that accountability to be less than public.”
The National Security Agency, for instance, could disrupt a Russian computer system in a way that leaves no doubt who did it and that warns the Russians “to knock it off,” one former intelligence official said. Or the CIA could leak documents that are embarrassing in some way to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But there is also unease about how Putin might respond.
“This whole thing is very fraught with all sorts of issues in all sorts of directions,” the second security official said.
Administration officials say the Democratic National Committee hack was an act of political espionage, which, while not welcome, is an activity that all governments engage in, including the United States. By contrast, they say, it is the release of 20,000 hacked emails to WikiLeaks, an act that forced the resignation of the committee’s chairwoman, that raises concerns of interference in the 2016 election.
Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said he has no reason to doubt that Moscow’s apparent actions were an attempt to interfere in the U.S. election. “The Russians are good enough at this that they could [have the material passed to WikiLeaks] without WikiLeaks ever knowing that they were the source. And WikiLeaks, of course, has no interest in knowing and even has a policy of taking data anonymously. There’s no other explanation out there that is credible.”
The Obama administration has previously not publicly blamed a foreign government for hacking strictly for political intelligence. But some officials say the White House should have publicly rebuked China for its massive hack of the Office of Personnel Management. Though considered an act of intelligence-gathering, its scale was so large that it merited a “naming and shaming,” one official said.
What the White House does — or doesn’t — do is significant because its response will send a signal to governments around the world, analysts said. Russia has been testing limits in all areas: militarily in Ukraine and in cyberspace in Europe and the United States.
“What action will trigger what response — that is the strategic question in cyber deterrence,” said Zachary Goldman, a former senior Treasury Department official who worked on sanctions, terrorism and financial intelligence.
Evelyn Farkas, a former senior Pentagon official focused on Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, said assuming a Moscow link to the WikiLeaks release, a response “at least as strong” as sanctions is warranted — and before November. “There’s a risk of waiting till after the election,” said Farkas, who stepped down last October and is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “If you want to have a chance of deterring, you have to move as quickly as possible. It sends a better signal to the world if we respond quickly. It shows that the president is still in control.”
But Sean Kanuck, who until May was the national intelligence officer for cyber issues with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said he is not sure the alleged Russian actions rise to a level that demands action. “If they actually manipulated the integrity of one of my electoral systems, it would warrant a national security response,” he said. “But just releasing DNC emails? Welcome to the new world. I would say that’s a law enforcement matter. The ‘doxing’ of a private entity is not a national security event.”