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Obama Sanctions Russia for Election Hacking

President Barack Obama during a press conference Dec. 16.

President Barack Obama during a press conference Dec. 16. // Olivier Douliery/AP

Updated Dec. 29 with comments from senior administration officials and members of Congress.

President Barack Obama retaliated for Russian cyber meddling in the 2016 presidential election Thursday, announcing new sanctions against Russia’s main intelligence agencies plus three other organizations and six individuals.

That retaliation could be reversed or undermined, however, by President-elect Donald Trump who takes office Jan. 20.

Thursday’s order also expelled 35 diplomats, who officials said were covert intelligence agents, from the Russian embassy in Washington and blocked Russian access to two Russian government-owned facilities in New York and Maryland they said were being used for intelligence operations.

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The expulsions are also in response to harassment of U.S. diplomats in Russia, officials said.

The U.S. also plans to launch a series of covert retaliatory actions, which may have already begun, senior administration officials said during a conference call with reporters Thursday. They added that Thursday’s sanctions and expulsions “should not be mistaken for the sum total of our response.”

“It’s an extraordinary step for them to interfere in the democratic process here in America and there needs to be a price for that,” a senior administration official said.

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in October that hackers linked to the Russian government stole information from Democratic political organizations in an effort to sow chaos in the campaign.

Those breaches and the release of information obtained from the Democratic National Committee, Hillary Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta and other sources may have been aimed at tipping the election in favor of President-elect Donald Trump, according to later news reports based on anonymous intelligence officials.

Trump has refused to accept the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia was responsible for the breaches.

Trump could reverse many of the Obama administration’s actions against Russia, including ongoing covert actions, a senior administration official acknowledged during Thursday’s call. Doing so, however, would be a mistake, the official suggested.

“If a future president decided he wanted to allow in a large tranche of Russian intelligence agents, he could,” the official said. “We think that would be inadvisable.”

Trump said during an impromptu press conference Wednesday those concerned with the breach “ought to get on with our lives," adding that “The whole age of computers has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on.”

Trump said he expects to speak with lawmakers who have called for investigations and additional sanctions for the Russian hacking, but made no further commitments.

“We have speed, we have a lot of other things, but I’m not sure we have the kind of security that you need,” he added, speaking about the digital age.

The FBI and Homeland Security Thursday Department released a 13-page technical analysis of Russian government hacking targeting election infrastructure, companies and think tanks, a campaign it nicknamed “Grizzly Steppe.”

Imposing Thursday’s sanctions required amending a 2015 executive order, which allows the Treasury Department to seize assets of individuals and organizations that launch cyberattacks targeting U.S. critical infrastructure, such as dams and electrical plants, or hack for commercial gain.

Thursday’s update adds hacking aimed at undermining elections or electoral institutions to the list of sanctionable activities.

The sanctioned individuals include Igor Valentinovich Korobov, chief of the GRU, the Russian intelligence directorate, and three other GRU officials, Sergey Aleksandrovich Gizunov, Igor Olegovich Kostyukov and Vladimir Stepanovich Alexseyev.

Russia’s foreign ministry shot back at rumors of U.S. retaliations in a Wednesday statement, referring to the allegations as “a misinformation campaign” aimed at aiding Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign and “lies about Russian hackers that continue to be spread in the United States from the very top.”

A U.S. official dismissed that statement Thursday, citing Russian denials of intervention in Ukraine. “We don’t see this as a ‘he said, she said’ situation,” the senior administration official said. “We see it as ‘there are the facts and there’s what Russia says.’”

Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz., among others, have called for tough sanctions against Russia along with congressional investigations into the election breaches.

Obama also ordered intelligence agencies to complete a full review before he leaves office of foreign hacking connected with U.S. elections dating back to 2008. An unclassified version of the report will be released publicly.

"The actions the president took today are an important step, but preventing Russia from interfering in our elections will require a sustained response from the next administration and from Congress,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the incoming ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Thursday.  

House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff, D-Calif., struck a similar note, saying the U.S. response to Russian electoral meddling could not stop with Thursday’s actions.

“We must evaluate the success of our response using only one critical metric—has it dissuaded Russia from further interference and bad conduct—and other, more punitive measures will likely need to be undertaken,” Schiff said.

House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., took a harsher line, criticizing Obama for moving too slowly against Russian hacking.

“Now, with just a few weeks left in office, the president has suddenly decided that some stronger measures are indeed warranted,” Nunes said. “This kind of indecision and delay helps to explain why now, at the end of Obama’s eight-year presidency, America’s influence has collapsed among both our allies and our enemies.”

Nunes has pushed back against calls for a special congressional committee to investigate the election hacking, saying it would duplicate work already being done by the intelligence committee and federal investigators.

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