Former President Barack Obama reportedly rejected a plan to retaliate against the Russian government's cyber meddling before the 2016 presidential election on Nov. 8.
Despite being given a dossier containing evidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin had directly ordered the cyber campaign, Obama decided not to punish the Kremlin because he did not want the appearance of tilting the election and believed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would ultimately win, according to The Washington Post.
On June 23, former Obama administration officials disclosed that Obama had been given a CIA dossier in August detailing the depth of Putin's involvement in a cyber campaign to subvert the presidential election. The classified document listed evidence of Putin directly ordering his intelligence community to undermine Clinton's campaign and help elect President Donald Trump.
A former official recounted that Obama "was deeply concerned and wanted as much information as fast as possible."
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"He wanted the entire intelligence community all over this," the official added.
In September, federal officials gathered with 12 congressional leaders to show them the evidence. While the participating Democrats wanted the White House to alert the American public, GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky dismissed the intelligence and said he would not support the Obama administration's assertion that Putin was trying to subvert the election.
Meanwhile, federal agencies drafted several retaliation measures against Russia. The proposals included slapping far-reaching sanctions on the Russian economy and a series of cyber attacks that would take Russian networks temporarily offline.
Obama chose not to take any action against Russia until after the election, concerned that any strikes would be perceived as partisan and confident that Clinton would still win, despite Russia's efforts.
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One former Obama administration official stated that the White House "was mortified and shocked" when Trump won the election.
The official added: "There was a sense of immediate introspection, of, 'Wow, did we mishandle this.'"
"It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend," said another former senior Obama administration official. "I feel like we sort of choked."
In December, Obama ordered that dozens of Russian diplomats be expelled from the U.S., two Russian compounds be closed and that several Russian individuals be sanctioned.
"I don’t think any of us thought of sanctions as being a primary way of expressing our disapproval" for Russia's interference in the U.S. presidential, a senior administration official involved in the decision told The Washington Post. "It was symbolic."
The Obama administration also began developing cyber plants that would disable key Russian infrastructure when triggered. While Obama approved the operation, it would be up to Trump to ever use it.
Several Obama administration officials defended the former president's decision not to retaliate sooner, citing that their priority had been to ensure the integrity of the vote on election day.
"We set out from a first-order principle that required us to defend the integrity of the vote," said former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. "Importantly, we did that."
Former Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes also revealed that the Obama administration did not discover the extent of Russia's cyber campaign until December.
"In many ways ... we dealt with this as a cyberthreat and focused on protecting our cyber infrastructure,” Rhodes said. “Meanwhile, the Russians were playing this much bigger game, which included elements like released hacked materials, political propaganda and propagating fake news, which they’d pursued in other countries. We weren’t able to put all of those pieces together in real time."
Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon asserted on June 23 that Obama did not have any good options leading up to the election.
"It is such a dilemma, because if he had acted aggressively, in a way that he had gone public and said, 'This is why we're doing this,' it would have been seized upon as an attempt to bias the election," Merkley told CNN. "So, there was enormous bias in the election because of the Russians, but how do you balance that out without further damaging it? It is an extremely difficult problem."
Former Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken noted that Obama had personally told Putin to cease the cyber campaign during a G-20 conference in October.
"What we saw, or thought we saw, after that, it looked like the Russians stopped their efforts," Blinken said. "But the damage was already done."
On June 23, Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois called on bipartisan cooperation to deflect any future Russian cyber campaigns.
"The reality is, in two or four years it will serve Vladimir Putin's interest to take down the Republican Party," Kinzinger said. "If we weren't upset about it, we have no right to complain in the future."