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Bipartisan Senate report urges presidents to "put aside politics" to fight election interference

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Washington — A bipartisan report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday recommended that the president of the United States "separate himself or herself from political considerations" when dealing with foreign interference in U.S. elections, including "explicitly putting aside politics" when addressing the public on election threats.

The report, which details — and, in many instances, harshly faults — the Obama administration's response to the coordinated interference campaign waged by Russia ahead of the 2016 presidential election, also said sitting officials and political candidates should exercise "the absolute greatest amount of restraint and caution" when calling forthcoming election results into question.

"Such a grave allegation can have significant national security and electoral consequences," the report warned, "including limiting the response options of the appropriate authorities, and exacerbating the already damaging messaging efforts of foreign intelligence services."

The release of the 54-page document comes one day after President Trump was acquitted by the Senate of impeachment charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. At the crux of the case against the president were allegations Mr. Trump ordered the withholding of military aid from Ukraine in a pressure campaign to force Kyiv announce an investigation targeting former Vice President Joe Biden, now a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate.

The report's release also follows an effective meltdown in reporting results from Monday's Iowa caucuses, after a faulty smartphone app delayed final delegate counts for days. The delays prompted some Democrats to raise questions about the integrity of the vote, and some officials affiliated with the Trump campaign suggested on social media that the process had been "rigged."

The Senate panel's latest chapter marks the third installment of what is expected to be five volumes of findings released by the committee, which began its investigation into Russia's coordinated influence campaign targeting the 2016 presidential election in January of 2017.

Read the full report

The partially redacted third volume consolidates findings from numerous interviews with Obama administration officials, most of whom said constraints stemming from divisive political realities at the time may have impeded their ability to issue a robust response to Moscow. Information silos maintained within the administration — and a delayed awareness of the sheer scope and purpose of Russia's influence campaign — also hampered the government's handling, Thursday's report said. 

"The Committee found that the U.S. Government was not well-postured to counter Russian election interference activity with a full range of readily-available policy options," its investigators wrote.

The report found that the five warnings issued directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior Russian officials by Mr. Obama and his national security team failed to have a meaningful deterrent effect.

The administration also failed to link Russia's cyber activities — which included a weaponized release of information hacked from Democratic political entities and a wide-reaching misinformation campaign on social media — with Moscow's broader influence campaign until August of 2016, just three months before the election.

Republican Senator Richard Burr, the chairman of the committee, said Obama officials were "frozen by 'paralysis of analysis,'" and "hamstrung by constraints both real and perceived."

"Obama officials debated courses of action without truly taking one," Burr said. "Many of their concerns were understandable, including the fear that warning the public of the election threat would only alarm the American people and accomplish Russia's goal of undermining faith in our democratic institutions."

"We must continue building on the lessons of 2016," Burr said.

"There were many flaws with the U.S. response to the 2016 attack, but it's worth noting that many of those were due to problems with our own system," Democratic Vice Chairman Mark Warner said. "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."

Delayed awareness

The report recounts the belated awareness most Obama administration officials had about Russia's hack of the Democratic National Committee, noting most said in interviews that they first learned of the intrusion in a story in The Washington Post in June 2016. Even then, there was no immediate suspicion that the hack could be part of a broader effort by Russia to undermine the election, investigators found.

"Witnesses told the Committee that the initial reaction of administration officials and the Intelligence Community (IC) was that Russia's cyber activity targeting the DNC fell within the bounds of traditional espionage and was not understood immediately to be a precursor to an active measures campaign," the report said.

A section that would appear to detail the intelligence community's eventual "wake-up call" is almost entirely redacted, but the report says then-national security advisor Susan Rice called for the material to be briefed to President Obama "within an hour or two" of her learning the information.

The receipt of the unspecified "sensitive intelligence" then spurred members of Mr. Obama's National Security Council to craft options for an official response, according to the report.

The apparent sensitivity of that information, though, led meetings about the matter to be "extraordinarily restricted," the committee found, citing officials who said intelligence was disseminated in a manner "reminiscent of the highly restricted meetings employed prior to the U.S. military operation to capture Osama bin Laden."

The highly restricted intelligence — and the small group of principals to which it was confined — posed an additional constraint on the administration's ability to deliberate and effect response options, committee investigators said.

Lisa Monaco, the former assistant to the president for homeland security and counter terrorism, said in an interview cited by the report that Mr. Obama's "clear guidance" to the national security team was "first and foremost ... to protect the integrity of the election" and make sure vulnerabilities were promptly addressed with state and local governments.

But officials were further daunted by the possibility that Moscow had the ability to take other, more destructive actions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of a G-20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, on September 5, 2016. ALEXEI DRUZHININ/AFP via Getty Images

"Ambassador Rice feared a range of additional actions Putin could take such as affecting votes, altering or deleting voter registration data, or falsifying and releasing information online that appeared to be authentic," the report said. "She stated that Secretary [Jeh] Johnson, as the head of [the Department of Homeland Security, DHS], decided to alert states and urge the secretaries of state to harden systems associated with their respective election infrastructure."

Above all, officials said they were wary that, by issuing a public warning about Moscow's activities, they would seed the very doubts Russia was aiming to grow. More than one official said the administration had to be careful about not "doing the Russians' dirty work for them."

"Administration officials told the Committee that they did not want the response to Russian election interference to be seen as a politically motivated action in an already highly political environment," the report said. "They were concerned that warning the public about Russian efforts would be interpreted as the White House siding with one candidate. They pointed out in interviews that candidate Trump was, at the time, publicly saying that the election would be 'rigged.'"

Efforts to avoid politics and get the intelligence community to "come to a unified, high-confidence conclusion" as to Russia's targets and intentions also "took longer than we would have hoped or anticipated," Rice said, which complicated the administration's efforts to issue attribution to Moscow.

Congressional leaders were also unwilling to issue a bipartisan statement reinforcing the administration's findings to prompt states to harden their election infrastructure.

Monaco and former CIA Director John Brennan said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told them during a September 2016 meeting, "[y]ou security people should be careful that you're not getting used." (The report says Burr, who was also present for the meeting, said McConnell's question related to the possibility that Russia's efforts could be enhanced, rather than blunted, by a statement from Congress.)

Despite expectations it would be "above the fold news," the public statement that eventually was issued — an unprecedented joint statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and DHS — was almost immediately eclipsed by news of the Access Hollywood videotape of then-candidate Trump, which was soon followed by the weaponized release of emails stolen from Hillary Clinton's campaign manager.


Apart from urging U.S. officials to address issues of election integrity with utmost care and apart from politics, the committee's recommendations stressed the need for future administrations to engage more fulsomely with countries on Russia's periphery, which, committee investigators said, Moscow uses "as a laboratory for refining its active measures campaigns."

They also urged the U.S. government to establish norms governing cyber activity and to position future cyber events in a full "geopolitical context."

The report called on ODNI to provide a "regular, apolitical assessment of foreign intelligence threats to U.S. elections, including clandestine foreign influence campaigns prior to regularly scheduled federal elections."

"Executive and legislative branch officials, regardless of party affiliation, should jointly and publicly reinforce the DNI's findings, particularly if a foreign influence effort is directed at specific candidates seeking office," the committee recommended.

It also said the public should be informed "as soon as possible" of any influence campaign targeting elections, even if information is incomplete.

"Delaying the release of information allows inaccurate narratives to spread, which makes the task of informing the public significantly harder," the committee wrote.

In November, a group of federal agencies released a one-page framework that sets out how government entities, political candidates and the public would be notified of foreign interference.

The Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to release two more chapters, including one that is likely to be highly redacted and reviews the 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment of Russian activities in the U.S. elections. The final volume on the counterintelligence concerns stemming from any political campaign links to Moscow.

The committee previously released two volumes of its final product.  The first focused on election security and was made public in July. It was followed by a second — released in October — on the interference campaign Russia waged on social media.

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