A week before the 2016 presidential election, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Benjamin Cardin sent President Barack Obama a letter urging him to take swift action against Russia for meddling in the electoral process through state-sponsored cyberattacks “on United States’ democratic institutions.”
“Such attacks cannot be tolerated and the United States must take immediate measures to ensure that those responsible are held to account,” the Democratic lawmakers wrote in a previously undisclosed letter dated Nov. 1, 2016.
“The seminal event in a functioning democracy is an election, and the international implications of the results of the U.S. election are far reaching. Russia’s actions threaten to undermine our process,” Feinstein and Cardin wrote. “Our electoral infrastructure is strong, but it is incumbent upon us to ensure that our institutions are protected. A cyberattack on our electoral process or any part of our critical political, economic or military infrastructure is a hostile action that must be countered.”
The letter was obtained by BuzzFeed News and Ryan Shapiro, a PhD candidate at MIT and the co-founder of the transparency project, Operation 45, in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit we filed last year against multiple agencies for documents about Russia’s interference in the election. It stands as a missing piece to a timeline about Democratic efforts to encourage the White House to speak out about Russia’s intrusion sooner.
Feinstein and Cardin’s two-page letter was a dire warning to Obama. They had hoped he would immediately retaliate against Russia. Perhaps it was an effort to ensure that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was victorious. But, as BuzzFeed News previously reported, the White House did little prior to Nov. 8 to punish Russia. On Friday, the Washington Post published a lengthy report that laid bare additional details about the Obama administration’s inaction.
Feinstein and Cardin suggested that Obama consider a number of different options to strike back at Russia. They said the administration should freeze the assets of individuals who engaged in cyberattacks in the US aimed at upending “our electoral infrastructure"; seek indictments in US courts against the individuals responsible for the cyberattacks; and launch counter cyberattacks against Russia, "including those in the Russian government who directed and carried out the attacks."
Spokespeople for Feinstein and Cardin did not respond to BuzzFeed News requests for comment.
Neither Obama nor anyone in the White House responded to Feinstein and Cardin. In fact, the senators did not receive a formal response to their letter until Dec. 7, 2016, when Julia Frifield, the assistant secretary in the State Department’s Office of Legislative Affairs, responded on the president’s behalf.
“As we have made clear to the Russian government and others, we will not tolerate attempts to interfere with the U.S. democratic process, and we will take action to protect our interests, including in cyberspace and we will do so at a time and place of our choosing,” Frifield wrote. “We appreciate your thoughts on steps that could be taken to respond to cyber threats, and assure you that the Administration is undertaking a comprehensive strategy to respond to malicious cyber activities and significant cyber threats, using a full range of diplomatic, law enforcement, economic and other public and private tools.”
In late December, the White House finally responded to Russia’s interference in the presidential campaign, expelling 35 diplomats and implementing a modest set of economic sanctions. But it fell far short of what Feinstein and Cardin had proposed. According to The Washington Post, Obama approved a covert measure “that authorized planting cyber weapons in Russia’s infrastructure, the digital equivalent of bombs that could be detonated if the United States found itself in an escalating exchange with Moscow.”
However, it was still in the planning stages when Obama left office.
Read the letters from Feinstein and Cardin:
Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.
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