WASHINGTON — The White House sought to muzzle two of Congress’s top intelligence officials when they decided to publicly accuse Russia of meddling in the US election last week, sources familiar with the matter told BuzzFeed News.
In a statement released Friday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam Schiff, the vice-chairmen of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees respectively, formally accused Russia of attempting to influence the US election. It was the first official, on-record confirmation from US government officials that the Kremlin is actively working to manipulate public confidence in the country’s election system.
But sources tell BuzzFeed News that the White House — which has stayed silent despite mounting pressure to call out its Moscow adversaries — tried to delay the statement’s release. The public accusation was of such concern to the administration that White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough was personally involved in the negotiations over releasing it, according to a congressional source.
Feinstein and Schiff, both Democrats, agreed to omit part of their original statement for security reasons, according to another congressional source. That request, which stemmed from concerns over classification, came from the CIA, a congressional source added Wednesday.
The White House then repeatedly asked the lawmakers to wait on releasing it — first for a day, then for three, the first congressional source said. By last Friday, the two offices decided to move forward.
“You can't have the White House telling a legislative body how to operate,” said the first congressional source familiar with the matter. “And [we] thought it was important."
The White House knew the statement would be released, the congressional official said. Asked if it supported Feinstein’s and Schiff’s statement last week, the White House would not comment.
The White House was aware of the statement, according to a senior administration official, but it did not engage with Feinstein or Schiff on the content of the statement. Both congressional sources said the minor change had to do with classification concerns, not the content of the statement.
The White House declined to comment on the record.
Asked by BuzzFeed News on Tuesday about the statement, Feinstein stood by its release. Along with blaming Russia for repeated attempts to manipulate the election, the statement also suggested the orders to do so had to come from the very top echelons of the Russian government.
“We believe that orders for the Russian intelligence agencies to conduct such actions could come only from very senior levels of the Russian government," the statement said. “We call on President Putin to immediately order a halt to this activity."
It’s the latest turn in a dramatic election-year saga that has tested the Obama White House’s savvy against Moscow adversaries. Coming up on the end of the president's second term, an increasingly aggressive Kremlin has put the administration between two less-than-ideal choices: publicly blame Russia for sowing chaos and risk escalating a cyberwar, or stay silent and give credence to critics who say the administration is weak when it comes to Putin.
Since July of this year, anonymous US officials have fingered Russia as the culprit in a string of cyberattacks built to sow distrust in the midst of campaign season — including the strategic release of thousands of hacked Democratic National Committee emails on the eve of the Democratic Convention.
Government officials — including President Barack Obama — have suggested the incidents weren’t worth a public spat between Washington and Moscow, and would risk igniting a tit-for-tat cyberwar between the two countries. One intelligence official told BuzzFeed News that, by confirming Russia’s role in the hacks, it could effectively validate the public’s concern over the security of the upcoming election. “Do you really want that shitstorm?” the official said.