(Bloomberg) -- The Republican and Democratic senators leading an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections joined in criticism of President Barack Obama’s administration for failing to do more to stop the meddling.
Republican Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr said at a hearing Wednesday that Obama administration officials have made clear they were operating “without a playbook” against a new threat with an undefined set of rules.
“They wanted to warn the Russians to stop interfering but avoid the appearance of putting their thumb on the scale in an election year,” Burr said.
It was January 2017 before intelligence agencies went public with their key finding that Russia was trying to hurt Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and ultimately help Republican Donald Trump.
Senator Mark Warner, the committee’s top Democrat, said the Obama administration was clearly caught “flat-footed” by the Russian effort, but he also faulted Trump and his campaign and congressional leaders for not forcefully resisting the Russian efforts.
“We should not have been surprised,” Warner said of the interference efforts, given Russia’s earlier efforts in Ukraine, and its use of leaks as a political weapon.
Amid deep partisan divisions over Russian meddling and whether anyone close to President Trump colluded in it, the Senate Intelligence panel has maintained a bipartisan approach so far.
Michael Daniel, a former special assistant to Obama and cybersecurity coordinator, confirmed he was given a “stand-down” order in August 2016 on options developed by his office to actively counter Russian interference. He said the vetoed options remain classified and he would discuss them with the Intelligence panel behind closed doors.
Daniel said it wasn’t accurate that no actions were taken after that order, but the work of his team shifted to defensive activities, including developing election infrastructure with states and a contingency plan for election day.
In response to a question from Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, Daniel said he thinks it’s “highly likely” that the Russians at least scanned the electoral systems of all 50 U.S. states, not the smaller number confirmed publicly.
The Russian efforts in 2016 were presaged by a famous incident in 2014 aimed at Victoria Nuland, who was then an assistant secretary of state and also testified Wednesday.
Russia was suspected of hacking into and leaking a private phone call in which she expressed frustration with European efforts to resolve political turmoil in Ukraine, saying, “F---k the EU.”
On Tuesday, Nuland testified that the Obama administration didn’t have sufficient coordination or a good understanding of deterrence tools it could use. She proposed creating a new Fusion Center modeled on the National Counterterrorism Center to quickly identify, expose and respond to state-sponsored efforts to undermine American democracy.
While Warner said it’s not true the Obama administration was idle, with Obama directly warning Russian President Vladimir Putin to knock off the meddling. But the senator from Virginia said “we could have done more to push back.”
Going into the 2018 elections, he said, “We’re still behind the 8-ball.”
Burr of North Carolina said the committee has invited others to testify at future hearings, including Obama’s former National Security Adviser Susan Rice and her deputies in a few weeks and Justice Department officials in July.
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