President Barack Obama hit at Russia and President Vladimir Putin during his final end-of-the-year press conference.
Obama stopped short of blaming Putin directly for hacks that interfered with the US presidential election, but he still pointed his finger in that direction.
“The intelligence that I’ve seen gives me great confidence in their assessment that the Russians carried out this hack,” he said.
Questions surrounding Russian interference in the election have become a central focus in recent days amid reports that a CIA assessment concluded Russia interfered in the US election with the specific goal of aiding Trump’s campaign. It was reported Friday that the FBI supported the CIA’s findings.
Internal emails from members of the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, were leaked online throughout the campaign. The organisation WikiLeaks released a steady stream of Podesta’s emails in the final weeks of the campaign.
Intelligence officials reportedly believe that Putin himself was directly involved in the hacks. And Obama seems to share that opinion, even if he neglected to fully endorse it.
“Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin,” Obama said. “This is pretty hierarchical operation. Last I checked, there’s not a lot of debate and democratic deliberation, particularly when it comes to policies directed at the United States.”
Obama also warned against allowing Russia to influence American political culture.
“The Russians can’t change us or significantly weaken us,” he said. “They are a smaller country. They are a weaker country. Their economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil and gas and arms. They don’t innovate. But they can impact us if we lose track of who we are.”
He also chided Republicans who support Putin.
“There was a survey that some of you saw where — now this is just one poll, but a pretty credible source — that 37% of Republican voters approve of Putin,” Obama said. “Over a third of Republican voters approve of Vladimir Putin, the former head of the KGB. Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave.”
Trump was often criticised during the election for his apparent fondness for Putin. Trump has often said that he would like the US to have a closer and more cooperative relationship with Russia.
But many in the foreign policy community see Russia as an adversary, especially considering the recent hacks.
Obama detailed some of the US efforts to stop Russian hacking in the future.
“What we can also do is to, on a bilateral basis, warn other countries against these kinds of attacks,” Obama said. “And we’ve done that in the past. So just as I told Russia to stop it and indicated that there will be consequences when they do it, the Chinese have in the past engaged in cyberattacks directed at our companies to steal trade secrets and proprietary technology. … What we’ve seen is some evidence that they have reduced, but not completely eliminated, these activities.”
He also emphasised that not all of these efforts to deter Russia’s cyberattacks are public.
“Our goal continues to be to send a clear message to Russia or others not to do this to us, because we can do stuff to you,” Obama said. “But it is also important for us to do that in a thoughtful, methodical way. Some of it we do publicly. Some of it we will do in a way that they know but not everybody will.”
He continued: “And I know that there have been folks out there who suggest somehow that if we went out there and made big announcements and thumped our chests about a bunch of stuff, that somehow that would potentially spook the Russians, but keep in mind that we already have enormous numbers of sanctions against the Russians.”
Obama also said that the “idea that somehow public shaming is going to be effective” in preventing future hacking “doesn’t read the thought process in Russia very well.”
Obama also reassured the public that while Russia might have attempted to interfere with the US election, the voting process was still sound.
“I can assure the public that there was not the kind of tampering with the voting process that was a concern and will continue to be a concern going forward, that the votes that were cast were counted — they were counted appropriately. We have not seen evidence of machines being tampered with,” Obama said.
“That doesn’t mean that we find every single potential probe of every single voting machine all across the country, but we paid a lot of attention to it … and we feel confident that that didn’t occur.”
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