Obama raps Putin, says U.S. can strike back on cyber
United States President Barack Obama put his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on notice on Friday stating that the U.S. could use offensive cyber muscle to retaliate for interference in the U.S. presidential election, his strongest suggestion to date that Mr. Putin had been well aware of campaign e-mail hacking.
“Whatever they do to us, we can potentially do to them,” Mr. Obama declared.
Caught in the middle of a post-election controversy over Russian hacking, Mr. Obama strongly defended his administration’s response, including his refusal before the voting to ascribe motive to the meddling or to discuss now what effect it might have had. U.S. intelligence assessments said it was aimed at least in part on helping Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton, and some Democrats say it may well have tipped the results in his favor.
Though Mr. Obama avoided criticising President-elect Trump by name, he called out Republicans who he said fail even now to acknowledge the seriousness of Russia’s involvement in U.S. elections.
Mr. Obama expressed bewilderment about GOP lawmakers and voters who now say they approve of Mr. Putin, and he has said unless that changes the U.S. will be vulnerable to foreign influence.
‘Reagan will roll over in his grave’
“Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave,” Mr. Obama said as he closed out the year at a White House news conference. Afterwards, he left for the family’s annual vacation in Hawaii.
Mr. Obama declined to state explicitly that Mr. Putin knew about the e-mail hacking that roiled the presidential race, but he left no doubt who he felt was responsible. He said that “not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin” and repeated a U.S. intelligence assessment “that this happened at the highest levels of the Russian government.”
He told Putin: cut it out
Mr. Obama said he confronted Mr. Putin in September, telling the former KGB chief to “cut it out.” That was one month before the U.S. publicly pointed the finger at Russia. Suggesting his directive to Mr. Putin had been effective, Mr. Obama said the U.S. “did not see further tampering” after that date.
The President has promised a “proportional” yet unspecified response to the hacking of the Democratic Party and Ms. Clinton’s campaign chairman. E-mails stolen during the campaign were released in the final weeks by WikiLeaks.
To help Trump win: CIA Director
On Friday, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director John Brennan said in a message to employees that the Federal Bureau of Investigation agreed with the CIA’s conclusion that Russia’s goal was to help Mr. Trump win.
Mr. Trump has dismissed the CIA’s assessment and talk about Russian hacking as “ridiculous,” while arguing both Democrats and the CIA are trying to undermine the legitimacy of his victory. He made no mention of the hacking or of Mr. Obama during the latest stop on his “thank you” tour in Orlando, Florida, on Friday night.
Ms. Clinton has even more directly cited Russian interference. She said Thursday night, “Vladimir Putin himself directed the covert cyberattacks against our electoral system, against our democracy, apparently because he has a personal beef against me.”
The Senate intelligence committee said on Friday that it would conduct a bipartisan investigation and hold hearings about what led the intelligence agencies’ finding. “The committee will follow the intelligence wherever it leads,” said chairman Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.
At the same time, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the House intelligence committee, complained that his committee’s oversight into the hacking had been stymied because the intelligence agencies had not provided information to the committee.
‘Let the pundits decide’
Mr. Obama said he’d leave it to political pundits to debate the question of whether the hacking swayed the election outcome. He did, however, chide the media for what he called an “obsession” with the e-mails that were made public during the election’s final stretch.
“The idea that somehow public shaming is gonna be effective, I think doesn’t read the thought process in Russia very well,” Mr. Obama said.
Slams Russia on Syria also
Accusations of Russian election interference have heightened the already tense relationship between Washington and Moscow. Separately, Mr. Obama has blamed Russia for standing in the way of international efforts to stop the civil war in Syria, where government forces have beaten back rebels in Aleppo.
Mr. Obama has said he feels “responsible” for some of the suffering in Syria, but he defended his decision to avoid significant military action there. He said that while military options short of invasion were tempting, it was “impossible to do this on the cheap.”
‘Blood and atrocities on their hands’
Still, he pinned the bulk of the blame on Russia, as well as Iran, for propping up Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“This blood and these atrocities are on their hands,” he said.
Meanwhile, the President rejected any notion that the dispute over hacking was disrupting efforts to smoothly transfer power to Mr. Trump. Despite fiercely criticizing each other during the election, Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump have spoken multiple times since the campaign ended.
“He has listened,” Mr. Obama said of Mr. Trump. “I can’t say he will end up implementing. But the conversations themselves have been cordial.”
Taiwan phone call
The President did weigh in on Mr. Trump’s decision to speak with the leader of Taiwan, a recent phone call that broke decades of U.S. diplomatic protocol. Mr. Obama advised Mr. Trump to “think it through” before making changes in the One-China policy, in which the U.S. recognizes Taiwan as part of China.
In a moment of self-reflection, Mr. Obama acknowledged he had not been able to transfer his own popularity and electoral success to other Democrats. His party is now reeling from the White House loss and failure to win back either the House or Senate.
“It is not something that I’ve been able to transfer to candidates in midterms or build a sustaining organization around,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s something I would have liked to have done more of, but it’s kind of hard to do when you’re dealing with a whole bunch of issues here in the White House.”