Updated: 5:30 p.m. E.T.
President Obama on Thursday announced sanctions against Russian intelligence services in response to their alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election. The combination of offensive and defensive steps, Obama said in a statement, was a “necessary and appropriate response” to Russian attempts to harm American interests.
Obama signed an executive order “blocking the property and interests in property” of Russian intelligence services, expelling nearly three-dozen Russian intelligence operatives from the United States, and releasing technical information to assist cybersecurity firms to prevent future attacks.
The president and members of the intelligence community have become increasingly confident that the Russian government directed the hack into the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta earlier this year in order to disrupt the presidential election. Those hacks, and the subsequent leaks of tens of thousands of personal emails, grabbed headlines and caught controversy for Clinton and the DNC throughout the fall.
Obama said U.S. intelligence officials will give Congress their findings on Russian interference in the coming days. The FBI released a report Thursday afternoon detailing Russia’s “malicious cyberactivity” to undermine the U.S. election and dubbing the effort “GRIZZLY STEPPE.”
CIA Director John Brennan sent a message to the agency’s workforce on Dec. 16 saying “there is a strong consensus” among the directors of the FBI, the national intelligence office, and the CIA “on the scope, nature, and intent of Russian interference in our presidential election,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Washington Post.
Obama said Thursday that the executive order also came in response to American diplomats experiencing “an unacceptable level of harassment in Moscow by Russian security services and police over the last year.” He said “such activities have consequences” and that these sanctions “are not the sum total of our response to Russia’s aggressive activities.”
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded to the White House’s actions by accusing President Obama of introducing severe sanctions “to further harm Russian-American ties, which are at a low point as it is.” Peskov said the Russian president Vladmir Putin, who has repeatedly denied his country’s involvement in the attacks, would retaliate in kind with an “adequate” response that would make the U.S. “feel very uncomfortable.”
Clinton and her team have pointed to the alleged Russian interference as a key reason for her loss in November while President-elect Donald Trump has dismissed claims of Russian hacking as merely sour grapes from the losing side.
Some Democrats were bewildered that Obama hadn’t taken steps to address the hacks before the election when the attacks seemed intent on harming his chosen successor. Obama explained in a press conference earlier this month that his top priority was maintaining the integrity of the electoral process; he said he feared escalating cyberattacks as Election Day neared. Obama’s former secretary of defense Robert Gates speculated about the possible thinking behind the president’s caution, telling NBC News that “cyber may not be the best way to go because once you get into that kind of an escalation, we’re in truth more vulnerable than they are.”
The White House’s response to Russia, following earlier sanctions imposed when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, comes less than a month before Obama is set to leave office and will undoubtedly force Trump to make tough decisions on a topic he has thus far shown little interest in. Chiefly, Trump must decide whether to carry on with his predecessor’s sanctions-driven policy toward Russia or to scale it back, potentially going against the judgment of intelligence officials.
Asked about the hacking again Wednesday night, Trump told reporters, “I think we ought to get on with our lives.”