White House

Obama says partisanship in U.S. is a greater threat than Russian hacking

President Obama tells Americans to not make Russian hacks "a political football"

In his final press conference, President Obama urged Americans to separate election politics from national security, and to make cyber security a bipartisan issue.
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In his final press conference, President Obama urged Americans to separate election politics from national security, and to make cyber security a bipartisan issue.

President Barack Obama said Friday he is deeply frustrated by “hyper-partisan” attitudes that have left some Republicans more trusting of Moscow than Washington, calling such attitudes a greater danger to America’s national security than Russian hacking of U.S. elections.

“Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave,” Obama said at a news conference, his final one of the year.

Obama reiterated his contention that “the Russians were responsible for hacking” the Democratic National Committee, starting in mid-2015, and that the U.S. will retaliate against Moscow for the meddling.

“What we have simply said are the facts,” Obama said. “That shouldn’t be a partisan issue. ...My hope is the president-elect is similarly going to be concerned that we don’t have foreign influence in our election process.”

Obama’s final news conference of the year was devoted largely to the alleged Russia DNC hack on a day when there were several major developments:

▪ The CIA announced in a letter to its employees that the FBI had joined the agency in concluding that Russian President Vladimir Putin had undertaken the DNC hack in hopes of boosting Trump’s election effort. The joining of the two agencies’ analysis removed one of the last questions around how widely accepted the theory of responsibility is in the government.

▪ U.S. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he planned to call for testimony from officials in both the Obama administration and the campaign of President-elect Donald Trump during the Senate investigation into the hack.

▪ The two Californians who lead the House Intelligence Committee offered widely different views of the unfolding drama. Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank, the senior Democrat on the committee, demanded that the U.S. immediately impose sanctions on Russia, while Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare, the Republican chair of the committee, expressed continuing dismay that his committee had not been briefed about the most recent CIA and FBI analyses of the motive for the hacking.

Obama’s presentation was perhaps the most dramatic development of the day. He defended his administration’s response to the hack, lamented what the discord over the hacks and the election results says about the state of American politics, and revealed his thoughts about the likely impact of the Russian role in the just-passed campaign.

Obama revealed that he had confronted Putin about the hacking at a summit in China in September and said that Russian efforts to probe the computers had diminished after he confronted the Russian leader. Obama also pledged that the U.S. would retaliate in a time, place and format of its choosing. But he sharply dismissed Russia’s threat to the United States, belittling its stature in the world order.

“The Russians can’t damage us or significantly weaken us,” Obama said. “They are a smaller country. They are a weaker country. Their economy doesn’t produce anything that anyone wants to buy except oil and gas and arms. They don’t innovate.”

“But they can impact us if we lose track of who we are. They can impact us if we abandon our values,” Obama added, hours before departing with his family for a year-end vacation in Hawaii.

He said partisanship has left many Republicans embracing anything that smells of opposition to his administration, even offering their approval of Putin, a former KGB chief. Obama cited a poll that he said showed 37 percent of Republicans voice approval of Putin.

“And how did that happen? It happened in part because for too long, everything that happens in this town, everything that’s said is seen through the lens of ‘Does this help or hurt us relative to Democrats or relative to President Obama?’” he said. “And unless that changes, we’re going to continue to be vulnerable to foreign influence because we’ve lost track of what it is that we’re about and what we stand for.”

On his administration’s affirmation that Russia is behind a series of cyber penetrations and hacks against the Democratic Party and operatives under losing nominee Hillary Clinton, Obama said an intelligence community report on Russian hacking would be released before he leaves office on Jan. 20.

“We will provide evidence that we can safely provide that does not compromise sources and methods,” Obama said, “but I’ll be honest with you, when you’re talking about cybersecurity, a lot of it is classified.”

Authorities will keep many details secret because “we don’t want them to know that we know” how Russian hacking operates, Obama said.

He said any other nation that attempts to hack into U.S. institutions or corporations will feel consequences.

“Our goal continues to be to send a clear message to Russia, and others, to not do this,” he said, adding, “Because we can do stuff to you.”

Obama brushed aside criticism, some of it from within his own party, that he should have taken a greater role in condemning the hacks publicly before the Nov. 8 election.

“I think we handled it the way it should have been handled,” Obama said.

At a G20 summit of the world’s most developed nations in Hangzhou, China, in September, Obama said he told Putin to “cut it out” and warned him that “there were going to be serious consequences if he didn’t.”

“In fact we did not see further tampering of the election process,” Obama said at the hour-long news conference. “But the leaks through WikiLeaks had already occurred.”

Obama noted that he’d issued an earlier warning to President Xi Jinping of China and that as a result “we’ve seen some reduction” of Chinese hacking on the United States.

Throughout much of October and in the run-up to the Nov. 8 vote, WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of emails stolen from the personal Google email account of John Podesta, chairman of the Clinton campaign. The leaks provided a drumbeat of news reports, often negative about Clinton and her closest advisers.

Obama said he did not speak out to avoid stepping into the electoral fray.

“My principal goal leading up to the election was that the election itself went off without a hitch,” Obama said.

Obama said the United States will continue to be subject to hacking attempts from overseas.

“We are a digitalized culture. And there’s hacking going on every single day,” he said, adding minutes later that, “We’re a wealthier nation and we’re more wired than some of these other countries and we have a more open society and engage in less control and censorship over what happens over the internet.”

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen