Obama Administration 'Inadvertently' Helped Russian Election Interference with 'Constrained' Response, Report Says

The Obama administration's response to Russian interference leading up to the 2016 election "inadvertently" aided the foreign country in accomplishing its goal, according to a report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday.

The U.S. government was "constrained in its response to Russian meddling" for several reasons, including concerns among officials that public warnings would "undermine public confidence in the election" amid a "heavily politicized environment." As a result, the 54-page bipartisan report said, the government was unintentionally "helping the Russian effort."

obama admin inadvertently helped russian election meddling
This combination of file photos shows former President Barack Obama speaking at the White House in Washington, DC on December 16, 2016 and Vladimir Putin speaking in Moscow on December 23, 2016. SAUL LOEB,NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty

"Frozen by 'paralysis of analysis,' hamstrung by constraints both real and perceived, Obama officials debated courses of action without truly taking one," Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the committee's chairman, said in a statement. "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."

"In navigating those valid concerns, however," he continued, "Obama officials made decisions that limited their options, including preventing internal information-sharing and siloing cyber and geopolitical threats."

The report was part three of the panel's investigation into Russian election interference, a concern that Intelligence Community officials have warned continues to persist in the run-up to the 2020 election. An earlier report published last summer found that officials in the Obama administration failed to sound the alarm on the interference over fears of portraying voting systems as "insecure."

"We were caught flat-footed at the outset and our collective response was inadequate to meet Russia's escalation," Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, said of the new report in a statement.

Among the other flaws with the government's response under former President Barack Obama was the "unknown extent" by officials "to which the Russians could target and manipulate election systems."

The administration also "withheld information" from congressional intelligence committees and other top lawmakers known as the "Gang of Eight," according to the Democratic minority views of the panel, authored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

"These constraints affected the response options available, as well as the timing and sequencing of their implementation," the report concluded.

Among the recommendations laid out to combat future election interference is the need for the Trump administration to prepare "to face an attack" and for officials to "jointly and publicly reinforce" the Intelligence Community's findings.

At times during the course of his tenure, President Donald Trump has given conflicting statements and questioned the conclusions of some of his top intelligence officials, including on the topic of election meddling.

During the course of the impeachment proceedings that came to a close Wednesday after the Senate acquitted him of the two articles, Democrats labeled Trump a "national security threat" because of his efforts to have Ukraine investigate a political rival—former Vice President Joe Biden—that could help his reelection efforts. Some Republicans said that while his actions may have been "inappropriate," he does not pose a risk and the conduct was not impeachable.

The Intelligence Committee's report also emphasized a need for increased transparency from any administration going forward. Efforts about election interference campaigns should be "shared as broadly as appropriate within government, including Congress," it said. And when appropriate, the same should be done with local governments, private businesses and the public.

"In the event that such a campaign is detected, the public should be informed as soon as possible, with a clear and succinct statement of the threat, even if the information is incomplete," the report said. "Delaying the release of information allows inaccurate narratives to spread, which makes the task of informing the public significantly harder."