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Obama orders review of US election amid Russian hacking concerns

After reports of "malicious cyberactivity" during the election season, Obama's top counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco says key stakeholders need fuller answers.

Michael Bonfigli
Lisa Monaco, Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, speaks at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast on December 9, 2016.

The Obama administration has directed the intelligence community to conduct a "full review" of the 2016 election process, driven by concerns about Russian meddling, said Lisa Monaco, the president’s top counterterrorism adviser.

With reports of "malicious cyberactivity" during the election cycle, Ms. Monaco said Friday at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, "we may have crossed into a new threshold – and it is incumbent upon us to take stock of that." By conducting an "after action" report, she added, the administration can better "understand what this means ... and to impart those lessons learned."

The Obama administration publicly blamed Russia in October for orchestrating a high-level campaign to interfere with US elections by targeting the Democratic National Committee and other political organizations with digital attacks and releasing stolen information publicly.

President Obama expects to receive the report before leaving office, which will include recommendations on how best to "impose costs" on Russia for hacking, as the administration has promised to do – but hasn’t yet disclosed how.

Monaco said the report will go to a “range of stakeholders to include Congress” but may not be released publicly. "That’s going to be first and foremost a determination that’s made by the intelligence community," she said. "We want to do so very attentive to not disclosing sources and methods that may impede our ability to identify and attribute malicious actors in the future."

Monaco’s comments come after renewed attention on president-elect Donald Trump’s position on this issue.

After repeatedly casting doubt during his campaign on the accusations of Russian hacking, Mr. Trump told Time Magazine that he does not believe the assessment from the US intelligence community that Moscow attempted to interfere in US elections.

"I don’t believe it. I don’t believe they interfered," Trump said, adding that he thinks such claims on the part of the US intelligence community are politically motivated.

For its part, the Obama administration believes the cyberthreats facing the country should not be simply a "technical or intelligence problem," Monaco says, but rather "as a threat in the national security space that we need to deploy all tools against."

That means taking lessons from the "counterterrorism realm and apply them to how we’re fighting the cyberthreat," she said. "The overlap is 100 percent," she added. "But we’ve learned a lot … that we can apply to [cybertactics]," which will involve everything from "destructive attacks to attacks that may make us question the integrity of data."

Prior to the presidential vote, Department of Homeland Security head Jeh Johnson called for voting machines and other parts of the election process to be considered part of America's "critical infrastructure."

The problem, Monaco said, is that state and local governments have raised concerns about this designation, citing a "danger" for federal government overreach. It is not an effort, Monaco insisted, for the feds to assert control over state and local authority.

Reflecting on the eight years that the administration has been engaged in the war on terror — and the 15-plus years since the 9/11 attacks — Monaco acknowledged a constant drumbeat of "white noise" around the possibility of terrorist attacks, and says that the time may have come to "recalibrate" the threat.

The fact that there have been no major attacks in 15 years means that the US has been good at strengthening its anti-terror systems. In the process, terror groups have less ability to conduct major "spectacular" attacks on US soil.  

The "more immediate" threat that comes from the ability of the Islamic State, among other terror groups, to inspire individuals and small groups.

There is also the prospect of additional so-called "soft targets" in a Trump administration, among them many buildings — including just miles from IS-held territory in Turkey — with the "Trump" name on them that may be appealing to terrorist planners.

"I imagine that's something the next [Trump administration] team will confront," Monaco said. The question remains, some analysts have pointed out, whether that then means that the US government has a special obligation to protect buildings privately owned by Trump and bearing his name.

In response to the Trump administration’s reported plan to announce retired Gen. John Kelly as head of the Department of Homeland Security, Monaco said that she found him to be a "professional, dedicated military man," when she worked with him previously in his capacity of the head of US Southern Command, which is responsible in part for helping to prevent the infiltration of drug cartels into the US.

Beyond noting that Mr. Kelly showed "tremendous regard for the troops who serve under him," she would not comment on criticism that Trump's cabinet is disproportionately filled with military men and could therefore endanger the principle of civilian control of the military.

"The president-elect is going to continue to put his team in place, and I think we should see how that ends up shaping up," she said, adding that she has not yet met with the Trump transition team.

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