recommended reading

Why Didn’t Obama Reveal Intel About Russia’s Influence on the Election?

President Barack Obama speaks at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa

President Barack Obama speaks at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa // Monica Herndon/Tampa Bay Times/AP

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 the president had ordered the intelligence community to perform a “full review” of election-related hacking, kicking off a sweeping investigation officials say should be complete before Barack 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 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 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 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 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 they were “confident” the Kremlin directed intrusions into “U.S. political organizations,” and that the leaked materials popping up on WikiLeaks, 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 cyberattacks, 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 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. Obama may have reason to reflect on that decision for a long time.

Threatwatch Alert

Network intrusion

Florida’s Concealed Carry Permit Holders Names Exposed

See threatwatch report


Close [ x ] More from Nextgov

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Modernizing IT for Mission Success

    Surveying Federal and Defense Leaders on Priorities and Challenges at the Tactical Edge

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • Effective Ransomware Response

    This whitepaper provides an overview and understanding of ransomware and how to successfully combat it.

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.