Obama’s secret struggle to punish Russia for Putin’s election assault – Washington Post

The White House debated various options to punish Russia, but facing obstacles and potential risks, it ultimately failed to exact a heavy toll on the Kremlin for its election meddling.

Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

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The White House debated various options to punish Russia, but facing obstacles and potential risks, it ultimately failed to exact a heavy toll on the Kremlin for its election interference.

Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.

But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

At that point, the outlines of the Russian assault on the U.S. election were increasingly apparent. Hackers with ties to Russian intelligence services had been rummaging through Democratic Party computer networks, as well as some Republican systems, for more than a year. In July, the FBI had opened an investigation of contacts between Russian officials and Trump associates. And on July 22, nearly 20,000 emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee were dumped online by WikiLeaks.


SECRET CIA REPORT ARRIVES AT THE WHITE HOUSE

CIA Director John Brennan first alerts the White House in early August that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered an operation to defeat or at least damage Hillary Clinton and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

The president instructs aides to assess vulnerabilities in the election system and get agencies to agree on the intelligence that Putin was seeking to influence the election.

Brennan calls Alexander Bortnikov, the director of Russia’s main security agency, and warns him about interfering in the U.S. presidential election.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s efforts to secure the U.S. voting systems run aground when some state officials reject his plan, calling it a federal takeover.

SECRET CIA REPORT ARRIVES AT THE WHITE HOUSE

CIA Director John Brennan first alerts the White House in early August that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered an operation to defeat or at least damage Hillary Clinton and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

The president instructs aides to assess vulnerabilities in the election system and get agencies to agree on the intelligence that Putin was seeking to influence the election.

Brennan calls Alexander Bortnikov, the director of Russia’s main security agency, and warns him about interfering in the U.S. presidential election.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s efforts to secure the U.S. voting systems run aground when some state officials reject his plan, calling it a federal takeover.

But at the highest levels of government, among those responsible for managing the crisis, the first moment of true foreboding about Russia’s intentions arrived with that CIA intelligence.

The material was so sensitive that CIA Director John Brennan kept it out of the President’s Daily Brief, concerned that even that restricted report’s distribution was too broad. The CIA package came with instructions that it be returned immediately after it was read. To guard against leaks, subsequent meetings in the Situation Room followed the same protocols as planning sessions for the Osama bin Laden raid.

It took time for other parts of the intelligence community to endorse the CIA’s view. Only in the administration’s final weeks in office did it tell the public, in a declassified report, what officials had learned from Brennan in August — that Putin was working to elect Trump.

Over that five-month interval, the Obama administration secretly debated dozens of options for deterring or punishing Russia, including cyberattacks on Russian infrastructure, the release of CIA-gathered material that might embarrass Putin and sanctions that officials said could “crater” the Russian economy.

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