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Behind The Senate Report Faulting Obama Administration On 2016 Election Interference


Frozen by paralysis of analysis, hamstrung by constraints both real and perceived - that's how the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee describes the Obama administration's response to Russian interference in the 2016 election. In a statement, Republican Senator Richard Burr says President Obama's national security team debated courses of action without truly taking one. Burr was commenting on the latest installment in his committee's long-awaited report on Russian efforts to disrupt the presidential election four years ago.


I'm joined now by the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner of Virginia.

Senator, welcome.

MARK WARNER: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Do you agree with that statement, that the Obama team was paralyzed?

WARNER: Well, I think there are clearly lessons learned. And I think the Obama administration, with the benefit of hindsight, should have acted more aggressively. But let's face it; I think our whole government - our intelligence community writ large, our law enforcement community - were caught off guard. I think there was such an abundance of caution shown by the Obama administration that this might politicize an already very political time.

In retrospect, we have to realize these kind of threats are ongoing and that when we see evidence of foreign intervention, the president, the administration needs to be more forward-leaning to put Americans on notice to beware and be on guard.

KELLY: Let me push you on that - the point you're making that this - the Obama administration was caught off guard, that they were worried about politicizing an already very political moment. But how much of a pass should they be given there? It's the job of the national security team to balance competing factors, to look out for national security, even in an election year.

WARNER: Well, again, I think we had never seen this level of coordinated attack from an adversary in the midst of our elections, to hack not only into the DNC but a series of senior Clinton officials, like John Podesta and others, and then selectively weaponize that information on how they dribbled it out over a period of time.

Now, you could say if we'd done a little more homework and looked at what Russia had done in Ukraine, what Russia had done previously in the Baltic states, we should have been more aware. And I think at the same time, the administration, on one hand, was looking at what Russia was doing on the geopolitical basis, where we had Russian actions in Crimea, but that kind of geopolitical analysis was totally separate from the Russian cyber and misinformation, disinformation effort.

KELLY: The point of doing a report like this is to avoid a similar situation going forward. How confident should we be that the problems your report identifies have been fixed?

WARNER: I wish I could say I was 100% confident. I wish I could point to broad bipartisan legislation that had been passed. I've gotten bipartisan legislation that would make explicitly clear that if a foreign government tries to intervene, the appropriate response is not to say thank you but to actually report it to the FBI. The fact that we've not passed that kind of legislation is bothersome. The good news is...

KELLY: Although was it legislation that was necessarily at fault here? There wasn't some - a law that the Obama administration lacked, was there?

WARNER: Well, I think - we're talking about 2020. If there was any gaps making it explicitly clear that foreign intervention is wrong, I think most Americans would realize that. But if we need a law to explicitly make that clear, we ought to have that.

The problem is we still have a president that refuses to fully acknowledge the level of intervention that took place, refuses to fully acknowledge that the Russian efforts have not stopped, that they will continue and, instead, unfortunately, has been out there putting forward totally debunked theories that somehow it was Ukraine rather than Russia that was intervening in 2016. That theory, by the way, which no one in the intelligence community, the law enforcement community - and for that matter, I don't think any of my Republican colleagues, at least on the intelligence committee - believe there's any credence to.

KELLY: Let me ask you the basic question. In your view, how serious is the ongoing threat of election interference?

WARNER: Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, said as recently as yesterday that the Russian efforts are ongoing. By the way, you know, the Russian playbook is now out there. So the expectation that the Chinese, the Iranians, the North Koreans, other nations in an asymmetrical way may try to intervene in our elections is a very real, ongoing threat.

KELLY: Senator, many thanks.

WARNER: Thank you so much.

KELLY: That is Virginia Democrat Mark Warner. We also invited the Republican chairman of the intelligence committee, Senator Richard Burr, to come on the show. He declined. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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