The White House on Thursday declined to classify what the intelligence community has concluded was a Kremlin-backed hacking campaign to influence the U.S. general election as an act of war.
In retaliation for Russia’s actions on behalf of President-elect Donald Trump, President Barack Obama last week slapped new sanctions on Russia and expelled nearly three dozen Russian intelligence operatives from the United States. Obama aides have signaled covert actions have also been conducted.
But Obama has yet to say whether Moscow’s actions amount to an act of war on America. His top spokesman, Josh Earnest, wouldn’t do so on Thursday.
“This is something that is deeply serious,” Earnest said.
“I think you can discern that President Obama and the rest of the administration takes this issue quite seriously,” Earnest said. “I don’t have a new label to apply to it today but this is something that has rightly drawn the attention of the American public and certainly drawn the attention of the president of the United States.”
U.S. intelligence agencies determined months ago that Russia’s intent was to influence the general election and erode Americans’ confidence in their country’s political institutions, Earnest said. Those officials feel more strongly now about the Kremlin’s intent than when it issued an initial assessment during the heat of campaign season.
But Earnest sidestepped a question about whether Russia might have carried out the hacking in retaliation for U.S. cyber actions against Russia.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain has been more blunt about his feelings.
“When you attack a country, it’s an act of war,” the Arizona Republican said recently on Ukrainian television. “And so we have to make sure that there is a price to pay so that we can perhaps persuade Russians to stop this kind of attacks on our very fundamentals of democracy.”
McCain said Thursday he is creating a cybersecurity subcommittee and expects Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to serve as its chairman.
As Earnest spoke from the White House briefing room podium, Obama was being briefed about the intelligence community’s report on Russian hacking.
President-elect Donald Trump, who has cast doubts on the hacking and on the credibility of American intel agencies, will be briefed on Friday by the leaders of those very entities.