After Russian 'interference' in election, US to announce retaliatory measures today

Washington, United States Dec 28, 2016, 10.12 PM(IST)

Obama, in an interview earlier this month with NPR, said, "We need to take action and we will" against Russia for interfering in the US election. Photograph:( Getty )

The Obama administration plans to announce on Thursday a series of retaliatory measures against Russia for hacking into US political institutions and individuals and leaking information in an effort to help President-elect Donald Trump and other Republican candidates, two US officials said on Wednesday.

Both officials declined to specify what actions President Barack Obama has approved, but said targeted economic sanctions, indictments, leaking information to embarrass Russian officials or oligarchs, and restrictions on Russian diplomats in the United States are among steps that have been discussed.

People tied to a Russian disinformation campaign that US intelligence officials say targeted Clinton's campaign may also be named

The US intelligence community has concluded that a hack-and-release of Democratic Party and Clinton staff emails was designed to put Trump into the Oval Office.

People tied to a Russian disinformation campaign that US intelligence officials say targeted Clinton's campaign may also be named under the plans, according to CNN.

Russia has repeatedly denied hacking accusations. Trump has dismissed the assessments of the US intelligence community.

Obama, in an interview earlier this month with NPR, said, "We need to take action and we will" against Russia for interfering in the US election.

Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham called for an even tougher US response to Russian interference in the American election.

The US Congress should "increase the sanctions on Russia for this misbehavior," McCain told Fox News, pressing for a permanent American military presence in the Baltic states, as well as arming Ukraine with weapons.

"You need to hit Russia in a sustained fashion," Graham added, saying that for Obama to act now just before he leaves office on January 20 would "send the wrong signal."

Russia's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, promised retaliation on Wednesday against Washington in the event of new economic sanctions.

Jim Lewis, a cyber security expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said further sanctions may be an effective U.S. tool in part because they would be difficult for Trump to roll back and because Russia "hates" dealing with them.

"For the rest of the world, it’s like having 'scumball' stamped on your forehead," Lewis said.

In past cases, administration officials have decided to publicly blame North Korea and indict members of China’s military for hacking because they decided the net benefit of public shaming – and increased awareness brought to cyber security – outweighed potential risks. But determining an appropriate response to Russia's actions has proven more complicated in part because Russia's cyber capabilities are more advanced and due to fears about disrupting other geopolitical issues, such as the civil war in Syria.

Obama may choose to invoke an April 2015 executive order that empowered him to levy sanctions in response to cyber attacks perpetrated by foreign groups targeting infrastructure, such as transportation, or done for economic purposes.

One option, said a US government official who has participated in discussions on possible retaliation, would be leaking material on Russian officials or actions that the United States already has obtained in a way that would “parallel what the Russians did, but be impossible to prove.”

The official compared that option to Russian military and civilian intelligence agencies providing hacked material to the anti-secrecy group Wikileaks and trying – unsuccessfully, the official said – to cover their tracks.

Another option would be further economic sanctions against Russia. Washington has already sanctioned Russia over the past two years to punish Moscow for its role in annexing Crimea. But former US officials say the existing measures leave Washington plenty of room to slap new, tougher sanction on Russia in response to cyber intrusions.  

The United States is still unlikely to impose blanket embargoes against Russia because of the danger it could harm the economies of Western Europe, said Peter Harrell, a former senior State Department official who worked on sanctions policy.

Instead, the United States may target specific Russian intelligence officials or military divisions believed to be involved in the cyber intrusions. “The Russian defence sector would be fair game,” Harrell said.

Looming over any action the Obama administration takes against Russia is whether Trump will seek to reverse course once he takes office on Jan. 20.

In addition to casting doubt on the conclusions of the US intelligence community about the hacks, Trump has repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and nominated people seen as friendly towards Moscow to senior administration posts.