Despite knowledge of election interference efforts directed from the highest levels of the Russian government, the Obama administration responded in mostly small and symbolic ways in its final weeks in power. The responses, outlined in a comprehensive Washington Post report Friday, included the expulsion of Russian diplomats in the U.S., the closure of two Russian facilities, and a set of very limited economic sanctions.
The Obama White House also issued repeated warnings to top Russian officials, including a direct warning by President Obama to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin had been identified by the CIA as guiding the hacking campaign, with the explicit goal of helping elect Donald Trump, as early as August.
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The outgoing administration also approved a cyberwarfare campaign targeted at Russian infrastructure, but the program was still in development when Donald Trump took office.
Some critics have found those responses lacking. Speaking to the Post, former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said “the Kremlin should have paid a much higher price” for interfering in the U.S. election process. Sources within the Obama administration, however, defended their decisions, arguing that the direct warnings helped deter Russian actors from attempting to directly tamper with American votes, while stronger actions might have triggered more serious reprisals.
The Post report does also describes pre-election efforts by the Obama administration to help states secure their voting systems against hacks. But that push ran into opposition from state officials and Republican legislators, who saw it as federal meddling in state affairs.
Responses that were reportedly considered, but ultimately abandoned, included broad economic sanctions against Russia, aggressive attacks on Russian computer networks, and even moving U.S. naval forces into a more aggressive posture.