Obama On Russian Hacking: 'We Need To Take Action. And We Will'

Dec 16, 2016
Originally published on December 16, 2016 10:38 am

President Obama says the United States will respond to Russian cyberattacks that the intelligence community has concluded were part of an effort to influence the 2016 presidential election.

In an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep that is airing Friday on Morning Edition, Obama said, "I think there is no doubt that when any foreign government tries to impact the integrity of our elections ... we need to take action. And we will — at a time and place of our own choosing. Some of it may be explicit and publicized; some of it may not be."

U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that hackers working for Russia hacked into the Democratic National Committee's computer network, as well as the private email of John Podesta, a top adviser to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Russia responded Friday morning. Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin's spokesman, said the U.S. needs to show some proof or quit talking. "It is necessary to either stop talking about it, or finally produce some evidence," he told Interfax, per the New York Times. "Otherwise, it all begins to look quite unseemly."

With the question of Russia's ultimate motivation for the hack becoming increasingly divisive, Obama was careful to not endorse a CIA assessment, reported by NPR and other news outlets, that asserts that Russia's goal was to elect Trump.

"There are still a whole range of assessments taking place among the agencies," Obama told NPR, referring to an order he has given the U.S. intelligence community to conduct a full review of the cyberattacks before Inauguration Day. "And so when I receive a final report, you know, we'll be able to, I think, give us a comprehensive and best guess as to those motivations. But that does not in any way, I think, detract from the basic point that everyone during the election perceived accurately — that in fact what the Russian hack had done was create more problems for the Clinton campaign than it had for the Trump campaign.

"There's no doubt that it contributed to an atmosphere in which the only focus for weeks at a time, months at a time were Hillary's emails, the Clinton Foundation, political gossip surrounding the DNC."

In fact, email had been a major focus since before Clinton formally entered the presidential race, owing to revelations first reported by the New York Times that she used a private email server during her tenure leading the State Department. Updates about the FBI's investigation of the server dripped out at intervals throughout the entire campaign.

The State Department also released Clinton emails at semi-regular intervals throughout the campaign, as did the conservative group Judicial Watch, which obtained them through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

Obama didn't pin the blame for Clinton's loss on the leaked information, saying, "Elections can always turn out differently. You never know which factors are going to make a difference. But I have no doubt that it had some impact, just based on the coverage."

Obama said his goal is for a definitive White House report on the matter to be issued before President-elect Donald Trump takes office on Jan. 20. He was also careful to say that while the Russian hacks benefited Trump, he is not suggesting Trump's campaign helped coordinate the attacks or played any role in them, other than to exploit them for political advantage. "They understood what everybody else understood, which was that this was not good for Hillary Clinton's campaign," the president said.

Obama acknowledged that every "big power" spies and collects intelligence on each other, but, he said, "There's a difference between that and the kind of malicious cyberattacks that steal trade secrets or engage in industrial espionage, something that we've seen the Chinese do. And there is a difference between that and activating intelligence in a way that's designed to influence elections."

Obama discussed cybersecurity with Vladimir Putin during a 90-minute meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit held in China in early September. The president characterized the meeting at the time as "candid, blunt, businesslike."

While Obama is threatening to retaliate against Russia, he has only about five weeks left in the Oval Office. Trump has dismissed — in fact, mocked — intelligence assessments tying the DNC and Podesta hacks to Russia, and he campaigned on improving the U.S. relationship with the country.

In his interview with NPR, Obama appeared mystified by that stance.

"The irony of all this, of course, is that for most of my presidency, there's been a pretty sizable wing of the Republican Party that has consistently criticized me for not being tough enough on Russia," he said. "Some of those folks during the campaign endorsed Donald Trump, despite the fact that a central tenet of his foreign policy was we shouldn't be so tough on Russia. And that kind of inconsistency I think makes it appear, at least, that their particular position on Russia on any given day depends on what's politically expedient."

The president cited a recent Economist-YouGov poll that found Republican voters view Putin much more favorably now than they did before the 2016 presidential election.

"This is somebody, the former head of the KGB, who is responsible for crushing democracy in Russia, muzzling the press, throwing political dissidents in jail, countering American efforts to expand freedom at every turn; is currently making decisions that's leading to a slaughter in Syria. And a big chunk of the Republican Party, which prided itself during the Reagan era and for decades that followed as being the bulwark against Russian influence, now suddenly is embracing him."

NPR reached out to the Trump transition team for comment but has not received a response.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Obama tells NPR News that he will respond to Russian interference in the U.S. election. The president made those remarks yesterday at the White House, which he leaves just over a month from now. He was in the Cabinet Room, where many past presidents have considered decisions about peace and war.

In our conversation, the president addressed the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and other targets. U.S. intelligence agencies have blamed Russia. President-elect Trump has rejected their findings. The current president seemed to have no doubts, though there is the question of how much difference the stolen information really made.

Did the Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee and other targets actually affect the results of the election in your view?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There's no doubt that it contributed to an atmosphere...

INSKEEP: An atmosphere, he said, clouded by many political distractions. The president contends the release of hacked emails from the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman were among those distractions.

OBAMA: That whole swirl that ended up dominating the news meant that, No. 1, issues weren't talked about a lot in the coverage. Huge policy differences were not debated and vetted. It also meant that what I think would have been a big advantage for Hillary objectively - her experience, her knowledge, her outstanding reputation around the world as secretary of state - all that stuff got lost.

And I think in that scrum - in that swirl, you know, Donald Trump and his celebrity and his ability to garner attention and obviously tap into a lot of the anxieties and fears that some voters have, I think, definitely made a difference. This - how...

INSKEEP: Did you say the election could have turned out differently? That's what I want to know.

OBAMA: Well, elections can always turn out differently. You never know which factors are going to make a difference. But I have no doubt that it had some impact just based on the coverage. And, by the way, I'm talking about mainstream news coverage. I'm not talking about a whole separate set of issues around fake news. I'm talking about what was in The New York Times and The Washington Post and on the nightly news and even on NPR.

INSKEEP: Was that the media's fault for focusing on the wrong things or the candidate's fault for not finding ways to get her message through?

OBAMA: Steve, you know, I'd say that Monday morning quarterbacking's always easy to do. And what I've said already publicly - and I'll repeat - there is something about our current political ecosystem - and we're all a part of it - the parties, the candidates, the media, the voters - that leads us to avoid going deep into the issues that are really going to affect people's day-to-day lives.

INSKEEP: You talked about this with the comedian Trevor Noah the other day. And you said a number of things in a row. You observed that there had been contacts between members of Mr. Trump's staff and Russian officials. You noted that Trump benefited from the hacks. Your spokesman, Josh Earnest, has gone on to say this week that it's obvious that Trump knew what was going on.

To what extent are you suggesting some kind of cooperation between the president-elect and Russian officials here?

OBAMA: I'm not suggesting cooperation at all. Keep in mind that those statements were in the context of everyone now acting surprised by the CIA assessment that this was done purposely to improve Trump's chances. And my only point was, that shouldn't be treated as a blockbuster (laughter) because that was the worst kept secret in this town. Everybody understood that. It was reported on.

INSKEEP: Now, the president did not say exactly what he thinks Russian President Vladimir Putin's motives were. He's waiting for a formal report from intelligence agencies. But he notes that the United States publicly blamed Russia for the hacks back in October, and he says Trump's campaign understood the hacks were helping him.

OBAMA: When you combine that with the fact that the president-elect has been very honest about his admiration for Putin and that he hopes to forge a more cooperative relationship with him and focus on the threat of Islamic terrorism, then my only point was we shouldn't now suddenly act as if this is a huge revelation.

INSKEEP: Is it necessary for the security of the United States that Russia pay some price for doing this - if, as they said - as you said, they did it.

OBAMA: I think there is no doubt that when any foreign government tries to impact the integrity of our elections that we need to take action - and we will - at a time in place of our own choosing. Some of it may be explicit and publicized. Some of it may not be. But Mr. Putin is well aware of my feelings about this because I spoke to him directly about it.

And there is a - among the big powers, there has been a traditional understanding of - that everybody's trying to gather intelligence on everybody else. It's no secret that Russian intelligence officers or Chinese or, for that matter, Israeli or British or other intelligence agencies - that their job is to get insight into the workings of other countries that they're not reading in the newspapers every day.

There's a difference between that and the kind of malicious cyberattacks that steal trade secrets or engage in industrial espionage, something that we've seen the Chinese do. And there's a difference between that and activating intelligence in a way that's designed to influence elections.

So we have been working hard to make sure that what we do is proportional, that what we do is meaningful. One of the things that we're going to have to do over the next decade is to ultimately arrive at some rules of what is a new game, and that is the way in which traditional propaganda and traditional covert influence efforts are being turbocharged by the internet and by the cyberworld.

INSKEEP: If whatever response you take is not completed by January 20, do you have any reason to have confidence that President Trump will continue it?

OBAMA: My view is that this is not a partisan issue. And part of what we should be doing is to try to take it out of election season and move it into governing season.

INSKEEP: The president knows that's tricky, though, since surveys show some Republican voters have warmed to Putin as Trump has campaigned.

OBAMA: Think about that. Over a third (laughter) of Republican voters think Putin's a good guy. This is somebody - the former head of the KGB who is responsible for crushing democracy in Russia, muzzling the press, throwing political dissidents in jail, countering American efforts to expand freedom at every turn, is currently making decisions that's leading to a slaughter in Syria. And a big chunk of the Republican Party, which prided itself during the Reagan era and for decades that followed as being the bulwark against Russian influence, now suddenly is embracing him.

INSKEEP: It sounds like you hope any response would continue after January 20. But do you have any reason to know that it would?

OBAMA: Well, I - you know, I can't...

INSKEEP: Is that - yeah...

OBAMA: ...Look into my crystal ball. And that's probably a question better directed to the president-elect. I can say that I've had a conversation with the president-elect about our foreign policy generally.

INSKEEP: And Obama says he told Trump about something he believes the next president must preserve.

OBAMA: Even our adversaries generally respect our adherence to rule of law, our transparency, our openness. And if we start losing that - if other countries start saying that, well, America doesn't care about these issues or it's just a might-makes-right environment and we're not speaking out on behalf of our values and demonstrating our values, then America's going to be significantly weakened.

INSKEEP: President Obama speaking yesterday afternoon at the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.