The CIA had top-level intelligence last August that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered an operation to help Donald Trump win the U.S. presidential race, the Washington Post reported on Friday.
The intelligence shocked the White House and put U.S. security chiefs on a top-secret crisis footing to figure out how to react.
But amid confidence that Democrat Hillary Clinton still had the election in the bag and worries over President Barack Obama himself being seen as manipulating the election, the administration delivered warnings to Moscow but left countermeasures until after the vote, the Post reported.
After Trump’s shock victory, there were strong regrets among administration officials that they had shied from tough action. “From national security people there was a sense of immediate introspection, of, ‘Wow, did we mishandle this,’” a former administration official told the newspaper.
The Post said that as soon as the intelligence on Mr. Putin came in, the White House viewed it as a deep national security threat. A secret intelligence task force was created to firm up the information and come up with possible responses.
They couldn’t do anything about embarrassing WikiLeaks revelations from hacked Clinton emails. The focus turned to whether Moscow could disrupt the November 8 vote itself by hacking voter registration lists or voting machines, undermining confidence in the vote tally itself.
Worried about making the situation worse, the administration put off retaliating, and instead delivered stiff warnings directly to the Russians not to go farther.
At least four direct warnings — Mr. Obama to Mr. Putin, spy chief to spy chief, and via top diplomatic channels — appeared to have an impact, officials told the Post. They believe that Moscow pulled back on any possible plans to sabotage U.S. voting operations.
“We made the judgment that we had ample time after the election, regardless of outcome, for punitive measures,” a senior administration official told the Post.
Options to retaliate were on the table early: more crippling sanctions on the Russian economy, leaking information that would embarrass Putin diplomatically, and launching cyberattacks on Russian infrastructure were high on the list.
But Mr. Trump’s shock victory dampened the response.
Mr. Obama took modest measures at the end of December, expelling 35 Russians and adding to existing sanctions. He also, according to the Post, authorized a plan to place cyberattack implants in the systems of critical Russian infrastructure.
But it remains unclear, the Post said, whether Mr. Trump has followed through with that. Mr. Trump on Friday questioned Mr. Obama’s response to the Russian hacking crisis. “Just out: The Obama Administration knew far in advance of November 8th about election meddling by Russia. Did nothing about it. WHY?” he posted on Twitter.
In an interview with Fox News program ‘Fox and Friends’ that will air on Sunday, Mr. Trump groused that Mr. Obama’s response did not get more media coverage. “The CIA gave him information on Russia a long time before they even — before the election. And I hardly see it. It’s an amazing thing,” Mr. Trump said.