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Senate Report Faults 'Paralysis' By Obama Team On 2016 Russian Election Scheme

Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., (right) and Mark Warner, D-Va., — pictured in September 2018 — released a report on election security Thursday.
Jacquelyn Martin
Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., (right) and Mark Warner, D-Va., — pictured in September 2018 — released a report on election security Thursday.

Russia's attack on the 2016 presidential election caught then-President Barack Obama off guard, and he and advisers were partly paralyzed with indecision over how to respond, a new Senate report concludes.

The study by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found that the government was "not well-postured" at the time Obama's administration began to detect and assess the wave of active measures launched by Russia against the presidential race.

Moreover, the highly partisan environment, unanswered questions about the extent of Russian capabilities, official dithering and more constrained the Obama response, the report said.

"Frozen by 'paralysis of analysis,' hamstrung by constraints both real and perceived, Obama officials debated courses of action without truly taking one," said Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C.

The silver lining, he said, is the extent to which the sometimes painful lessons of 2016 have been taken to heart across officialdom and at many levels in the United States, from the federal government on down.

"Thankfully, as we approach the 2020 presidential election, we are in a better position to identify foreign interference efforts and address vulnerabilities Russia and other hostile foreign actors may seek to exploit," Burr said. "We must continue building on the lessons of 2016, including making sure we have strong response options at the ready."

A "hyper-partisan environment"

Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., echoed what he called the importance of preparedness and underscored that the look back at 2016 wasn't a purely academic exercise — the political atmosphere hasn't gotten any less charged since Obama's time, and that will continue to complicate decisions about how to respond to active measures.

"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 hyper-partisan environment," Warner said.

He alluded to weeks' worth of debate within Obama's team in 2016 about how or whether to alert Congress or Americans about what intelligence officials were discovering about Russia's interference, to the degree they understood it then.

Obama and advisers feared that revealing Russia's active measures might undermine Americans' confidence in the election or open Democrats up to accusations that Obama might be trying to help Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

Russia launched a wave of active measures aimed at helping Trump and hurting Clinton. Eventually the administration did publicly announce that assessment, one later strengthened by subsequent reports from the intelligence community, the Senate Intelligence Committee and special counsel Robert Mueller.

Officials from the Obama era told Senate investigators they moved as fast as they responsibly could. Then-national security adviser Susan Rice, for example, is quoted in the report making clear that she believed the right decision was to wait until the case was airtight before acting.

"That took longer than we would have hoped or anticipated," she said. "But you couldn't have it bad; you had to have it when it was done and ready and that was the [intelligence community's] to determine."

The Gang of Eight

The problems in 2016 weren't only the fault of the Obama administration, said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who appended a minority report to the Senate study.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., complicated matters because he didn't agree to issue a bipartisan statement decrying Russian interference, Wyden charged. Compounding the problem, he argued, is that an informal process and incomplete record-keeping means it's impossible to reconstitute now what members of Congress were told and how they responded.

"The missing details of these interactions are critically important because of what happened next," Wyden wrote. "I believe that warning the public about a foreign influence campaign should not depend on the support of both parties, particularly when one of the parties stands to gain politically from that campaign."

Obama's administration did, however, and Wyden quotes then-deputy national security adviser Avril Haines as saying that the absence of a bipartisan condemnation from Congress "tempered our response options."

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., echoed Wyden's criticisms of the process for briefing the "Gang of Eight" — the small cadre of legislative leaders in both chambers Congress that receives specialized, selective briefings about intelligence and other matters.

"The decision to limit engagement with Congress through the Gang of Eight mechanism meant that no formal records were kept of the various interactions between administration principals and congressional leaders," Heinrich said. "As a consequences, we cannot know precisely what was shared in these meetings or how members of Congress created."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.