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How Obama reacted to Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 US election

Catch Team | Updated on: 24 June 2017, 20:32 IST

Last August, former US president Barack Obama received an “intelligence bombshell” from the CIA. A package, on which was written "for your eyes only", warned of how Russian president Vladimir Putin had directed a hacking campaign to ensure that Hillary Clinton lost and Donald Trump won.

In an explosive investigative report, The Washington Post details how Obama and his aides struggled with when to release the highly sensitive intelligence because they feared being accused of attempting to influence the elections themselves.

"The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump," writes The Post.

Clinton herself had blamed Russian interference and Putin's meddling as the real reason for her loss. She had pointed fingers at Russia for both the hack of the Democratic National Committee and of her campaign chairman, John Podesta.

The lengthy report, based on a series of interviews with more than three dozen former and current US officials, has raised the hackles of many as to Russia's hand in the presidential election.

Overall, the report more or less puts light on the how the Obama administration was wracked with worry over just how it ought to address Russia’s actions.

Treading with caution

The detailed Post story talks of how the Obama administration considered retaliatory action and even sanctions designed to "cripple" the Russian economy. In fact, hackers were recruited and the groundwork was laid out, but none of it came to any fruition.

"Throughout his presidency, Obama’s approach to national security challenges was deliberate and cautious. He came into office seeking to end wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was loath to act without support from allies overseas and firm political footing at home. He was drawn only reluctantly into foreign crises, such as the civil war in Syria, that presented no clear exit for the United States," The Post reports.

"Obama’s approach often seemed reducible to a single imperative: Don’t make things worse. As brazen as the Russian attacks on the election seemed, Obama and his top advisers feared that things could get far worse," adds The Post.

Only small actions were taken instead: the expelling of 35 Russian diplomats from US soil and sanctions against a small group of Russian intelligence officials and companies who were though to be involved in the election hack.

"I feel like we sort of choked," one senior White House official told The Post.

The reason given for this "choke", to a large extent, was the fear of collateral damage. According to The Post, Obama and his team “worried that any action they took would be perceived as political interference in an already volatile campaign.”

More so, he was waiting for “a high-confidence assessment from U.S. intelligence agencies on Russia’s role and intent.”

“Obama also approved a previously undisclosed covert measure that authorised planting cyber weapons in Russia’s infrastructure, the digital equivalent of bombs that could be detonated if the United States found itself in an escalating exchange with Moscow. The project, which Obama approved in a covert-action finding, was still in its planning stages when Obama left office. It would be up to President Trump to decide whether to use the capability,” The Post reports.

Trump has already tweeted about the story, asking why Obama took no action at all:

First published: 24 June 2017, 20:32 IST