President Obama publicly accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of involvement in cyberattacks aimed at the U.S. election and leveled a threat on Friday — that the U.S. would retaliate, perhaps in ways no one but the Russians would see.
Obama said that he had “great confidence” in the assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russians had carried out computer hacks aimed at the Democratic National Committee and senior aides to presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, and that the operation had been approved at “the highest levels” in Moscow.
“Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin,” he added, saying that the Russians needed to understand that “we can do stuff to you.”
Obama’s statement came as CIA and FBI officials sought to rebut claims that the agencies were at odds in their assessment of Russia’s role in the attacks.
In a message to CIA employees, the agency’s director, John Brennan, said that a “strong consensus” existed among U.S. intelligence services that Russia orchestrated hacks and that the online leaks were designed at least in part to help Donald Trump win the White House.
FBI Director James B. Comey and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. agreed with that assessment, Brennan wrote. He had met separately with both of them, Brennan added, and “there is strong consensus among us on the scope, nature, and intent of Russian interference in our presidential election.”
The message was confirmed by a U.S. official after it was first reported by the Washington Post.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was continuing and portions of it are classified.
Although FBI agents have not determined Russia’s motive with certainty, they can tell the hacks targeted Democrats and benefited Trump. Whether the Russians were trying to help elect Trump, sow confusion in the electoral process, undermine an eventual Clinton presidency or achieve a combination of those outcomes remains unclear to agents, the second official said.
Russian officials have denied involvement in the hacking and have said the U.S. should show more proof or let the subject drop.
Trump has repeatedly denied that anyone knows whether Russia was behind the leaked emails and has mocked the CIA’s assessment that top Russian officials intervened to help him get elected.
In the face of those denials, Obama, who has directed U.S. intelligence agencies to complete a thorough review of the Russian actions before he leaves office, said his administration would disclose at least some of the evidence to the public. But, he warned, much of it would have to remain secret.
“We will provide evidence that we can safely provide, that does not compromise sources and methods,” he said. He added: “When you are talking about cybersecurity, a lot of it is classified, and we’re not going to provide it because the way we catch folks is by knowing certain things about them that they may not want us to know.”
Obama’s final scheduled news conference of the year — an unusually long 90-minute affair that was interrupted briefly while the White House doctor attended to a reporter who had fainted — revealed a deepening preoccupation with Putin and Russia in the waning days of his presidency.
Asked about Trump’s dealings with China and Taiwan since the election, Obama cautioned the president-elect not to wade too deeply into foreign policy too soon.
Obama said he had told Trump that “before he starts having a lot of interactions with foreign governments other than the usual courtesy calls, that he should want to have his full team in place” and “fully briefed” so they “know what they’re talking about.”
And he repeated that the blame for the carnage in Aleppo, Syria, where thousands more civilians were killed or displaced in the last week, should fall on the Syrian government and its Russian allies.
But it was the Russian interference in the campaign and the partisan debate surrounding it that clearly was on the president’s mind.
In an interview with National Public Radio that aired earlier in the day, Obama said that the leaks from Democratic emails had “contributed to an atmosphere in which the only focus for weeks at a time, months at a time, were Hillary’s emails, the Clinton Foundation, political gossip surrounding the DNC.”
He returned to that theme repeatedly during the news conference. His intense focus on the topic suggested widespread worry among Western allies about a rising threat from Russia, as well as his own concern that Trump and the Republican Party lack the proper skepticism of the Russian leader.
Displaying a partisan tone that he had avoided in other remarks since the election, Obama sharply criticized Republicans who have spoken admiringly of Putin and who have tried to deny or minimize Russia’s interference in the election. He cited a recent YouGov poll that showed 37% of Republicans now approve of Putin.
“Over a third of Republican voters approve of Vladimir Putin, the former head of the KGB. Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave,” Obama said.
“And how did that happen? It happened in part because for too long, everything that happens in this town, everything that’s said, is seen through the lens of ‘does this help or hurt us relative to Democrats or relative to President Obama.’”
Russia, he said, can’t “significantly weaken us. They are a smaller country; they are a weaker country. Their economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil and gas and arms. They don’t innovate.”
But, he said, the U.S. could weaken itself through excessive partisanship and mutual mistrust.
“What I worry about more than anything,” he added, is how “you start to see certain folks in the Republican Party and Republican voters suddenly finding a government and individuals who stand contrary to everything that we stand for as being OK, because that’s how much we dislike Democrats.”
Obama denied that there had been much “squabbling” between the White House and Trump’s aides on the topic, brushing off Trump’s recent criticism of the White House press secretary as evidence that “the president-elect, you know, is still in transition mode.”
And as Marine helicopters circled the airspace above the White House in preparation for his departure for two weeks of vacation in Hawaii, the president derided the idea that a systematic attack on Democratic computer systems could have happened without Putin’s knowledge.
“This is a pretty hierarchical operation,” he said of the Russian government. “Last I checked, there’s not a lot of debate and democratic deliberation, particularly when it comes to policies directed at the United States.”
“I will confirm that this happened at the highest levels of the Russian government,” Obama went on. “And I will let you make that determination as to whether there are high-level Russian officials who go off rogue and decide to tamper with the U.S. election process without Vladimir Putin knowing about it.”
Times staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.
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