On Friday, the Obama administration turned a bright spotlight onto the Russian government’s attempts to influence America’s presidential election. The White House announced that the president had ordered the intelligence community to perform a “full review” of election-related hacking, kicking off a sweeping investigation that officials say should be complete before President Obama’s second term ends in less than six weeks. That evening, administration officials leaked the results of a secret CIA investigation into Russia’s motives for launching election-related cyberattacks to The Washington Post. The CIA had concluded that Russia “intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency.”
Members of Congress who called on the White House to release more information about Russian involvement in the 2016 election—and who repeatedly hinted that the administration hadn’t publicized everything it knows on the issue—were vindicated by the revelations. But the news came too late to make a difference in the election.
The CIA only shared its latest findings with top senators last week, the Post reported, but it’s not clear when the agency made the determination. In an interview with MSNBC on Saturday, however, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid—who is known for making bold accusations—said FBI Director Jim Comey has known about Russia’s ambitions “for a long time,” but didn’t release that information.
If that’s true, why didn’t the Obama administration push to release it earlier?
For one, the White House was probably afraid of looking like it was tipping the scale in Hillary Clinton’s favor, especially in an election that her opponent repeatedly described as rigged. Though Obama stumped for Clinton around the country, the administration didn’t want to open him up to attacks that he unfairly used intelligence to undermine Trump’s campaign, the Post reported.
Instead, top White House officials gathered key lawmakers—leadership from the House and Senate, plus the top Democrats and Republicans from both houses’ intelligence and homeland security committees—to ask for a bipartisan condemnation of Russia’s meddling. The effort was stymied by several Republicans who weren’t willing to cooperate, including, reportedly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. (On Sunday morning, a bipartisan statement condemning the hacks came from incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Jack Reed, a Democrat, and Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham.)
It’s also possible that the administration, like most pollsters and pundits, was overconfident in its assessment that Clinton would win the election. Officials may have been more willing to lob incendiary accusations—and risk setting off a serious political or cyber conflict with Russia—if they had thought Trump had a good chance to win.
The silence from the White House and the CIA was a stark contrast to the Comey’s announcement just weeks before the election that it was examining new documents related to its investigation into Clinton’s emails.
The closest the administration came to accusing Russia of trying to get Trump elected came in October, just over a month before Election Day. In a statement, all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies announced that they were “confident” that the Kremlin directed intrusions into “U.S. political organizations,” and that the leaked materials that were popping up on Wikileaks, DCLeaks.com, and on the website claimed by a hacker called “Guccifer 2.0” were likely connected to Russia. The statement said the thefts and disclosures were “intended to interfere with the U.S. election process,” but it didn’t say whether they were meant to help one candidate more than another.
Clinton raised the findings during the third presidential debate. “We've never had a foreign government trying to interfere in our election,” she said. “We have 17 intelligence agencies, civilian and military, who have all concluded that these espionage attacks, these cyber attacks, come from the highest levels of the Kremlin.”
Trump shot back that “our country has no idea” who was behind the hacks, despite the agencies’ reports. (After the CIA’s assessment leaked on Friday, Trump’s campaign team tried to discredit the agency: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” it said in a statement. In fact, the George W. Bush administration appears to have extrapolated from the CIA’s findings to justify invading Iraq in 2003.)
In his campaign appearances, Obama didn’t make a big deal of the intelligence community’s October announcement, which may have helped the revelation slip out of headlines and away from the consciousness of voters.
Perhaps the latest intelligence from the CIA—that Russia was trying to help Trump win—wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the vote. But if it would have given voters reason to doubt Trump, the administration’s unwillingness to publicize the specifics of the Kremlin’s meddling may have helped cost Clinton the election. President Obama may have reason to reflect on that decision for a long time.