President Obama has bowed to pressure and announced a formal investigation into Russian hacking aimed at influencing the recent presidential election.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz announced on Friday that the Obama administration would seek to have the report wrapped up before President-elect Donald Trump takes office in January of 2017.
"The President earlier this week instructed the intelligence community to conduct a full review of the pattern of malicious cyber activity related to our presidential election cycle," Schultz told reporters.
White House's counterterrorism advisor Lisa Monaco told reporters that the president had "directed the Intelligence Community to conduct a full review of what happened during the 2016 election process." It came after all the Democrats on the Senate's Intelligence Committee asked for the intelligence agencies to declassify what they had discovered about Russia's actions.
The report will, according to Monaco, "capture lessons" – but she warned senators to be careful about disclosing sources of information in case it impeded future investigations.
All of the US government's intelligence agencies – with the exception of the FBI – took the highly unusual step at the height of the presidential election of saying that the Russian government was actively trying to interfere with the results.
Chief among the issues was the hacking and then leaking – to Wikileaks – of hundreds of emails from the campaign manager of Hillary Clinton, John Podesta, as well as hundreds of other emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
The emails contained some embarrassing revelations, but more than anything they enabled a controversy over Clinton's earlier emails when she was secretary of state to be brought up again and again in an effort to paint her as untrustworthy.
Just as incredibly, her rival in the presidential race, Donald Trump, appeared to take a very pro-Russia stance during his campaign, repeatedly defending and praising Vladimir Putin – an almost unheard-of position for a US politician to take. And then there were the claims of a secret backdoor between Trump's headquarters in New York and the Russian government in Moscow.
In October, the Director of National Intelligence put out a statement accusing the Russian government of working with WikiLeaks and "Guccifer 2.0" to conduct targeted hacking operations in an effort to interfere with the election.
"Such activity is not new to Moscow – the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there," the DNI said at the time.
"We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized these activities."
Russia has denied the allegations.
While Clinton repeatedly referred to Russian efforts to sway the election in Trump's favor, Trump himself kept denying there was any evidence of it.
The issue even extended to recounts currently going on in three states, with some convinced that Russia may have hacked voting machines ahead of the election in order to shift voting numbers in Trump's favor.
Aside from the heavy political undertones, the issue of a foreign power actively interfering in a US election is something that many in the government wish to explore and understand in an effort to ensure it cannot happen again.
There are still questions about the extent of the hacking and whether they were specifically intended to shift the election result, or whether the whole issue was being seen through the wrong lens thanks to the heat of the race.
Democrats pushed for the investigation – which is expected to finish up and report before Donald Trump takes over the White House at the end of January – because they felt strongly that Trump was very unlikely to approve such a review himself.
The lead Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff (D-CA) said as much: "Given president-elect Trump's disturbing refusal to listen to our intelligence community and accept that the hacking was orchestrated by the Kremlin, there is an added urgency to the need for a thorough review before President Obama leaves office next month," he said in a statement.
"More than that, the administration must begin to take steps to respond forcefully to this blatant cyber meddling, and work with our allies in Europe who have been targets of similar attacks to impose costs on the Kremlin; if we do not, we can expect to see a lot more of this in the near future."
Someone else interested in the results is Russia. "We are also very interested in understanding what they accused Russia of," said its Foreign Ministry. "Many times [we] have asked Americans to provide full information. But never had any response."
Amazingly, Donald Trump has yet to weigh in on the investigation, tied up as he is with attacking individual union leaders in Indianapolis. ®