U.S. President Barack Obama says he spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin in September about the alleged hacking of the Democratic Party, and that the hacking did not continue after that conversation.
Obama made the comment after giving his annual year-end news conference from the White House Friday.
“What we’ve simply said is the facts, which are that based on uniform intelligence assessments, the Russians were responsible for hacking the DNC and that, as a consequence, it is important for us to review all elements of that and make sure that we are preventing that kind of interference through cyberattacks in the future,” he said.
Watch: Obama on Putin and Cyberattacks, Syria
Obama said his administration took pains not to draw any conclusions about the effects of the hacking, because of the politically charged atmosphere in the lead-up to the election.
“Part of the goal here was to make sure that we did not do the work of the leakers for them by raising more and more questions about the integrity of the election right before the election was taking place,” Obama said.
When asked if he believed the hacking was responsible for the election loss of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, he did not answer directly. Obama said, “I’m going to let all the pundits in this town have a lot of discussions about that.”
Confrontation with Putin
Obama said he spoke with Putin in September at an event in China, telling him to stop the interference.
Watch: Obama on Talking to Putin on Hacking US Election
“I felt that the most effective way to ensure that it did not happen [again] was to talk to him directly and tell him to cut it out, there were going to be some serious consequences if he did not,” Obama said of Putin. He said after he spoke with the Russian leader, U.S. officials stopped seeing evidence of tampering.
Obama also blamed the media for focusing on the content of the hacked emails from the Democratic Party, rather than looking at the implications of such a development.
“I am finding it a little curious that everybody is suddenly acting surprised that this looked like it was disadvantaging Hillary Clinton, because you guys [the media] wrote about it every day, every single leak about every little juicy tidbit of political gossip, including John Podesta’s risotto recipe,” Obama said to the reporters at his news conference.
But he defended his administration’s handling of the events, saying “we handled it the way we should have.”
Obama also noted that he has addressed similar concerns with China by having a similar conversation with China’s President Xi Jinping.
Options for retaliation
Obama did not discuss much of what he thought the U.S. could do to retaliate against Russia or other potential state-driven hacks. But other parties questioned by VOA had more to say.
“There has to be a response,” said retired General David Petraeus, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and former commander of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Petraeus told VOA Friday that the United States has several options.
“How subtle do you want it? How damaging do you want it? How do you ... end it here rather than start to ratchet up and take it farther and farther?” he asked. “We’ve been through this with other countries in other cases where you try to find, is there something we could do to them that they would see, that they would realize 98 percent that we did it, but it would be so obvious that they then have to respond.”
Watch: Obama on How US Will Respond to Russian Hacking
“The Russians have been at the cyber business as long as cyber has existed,” said retired Admiral James Winnefeld, former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “They saw this immediately for what it was — an opportunity, particularly in the Russian way of doing business, of getting things done in a non-attributable way.”
Winnefeld added, “Whether it was merely designed to undermine our own confidence in our political process, which is bad enough, or whether it was actually intended to influence the election, which is even worse, it’s still an extension of politics into a different realm and we have to take it seriously.”
Joseph Nye of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government told VOA that in terms of response, the United States must be firm.
“We have to make it clear that we’re not going to tolerate that, not just from the Russians, but from anybody. ... Unless we come down hard on this now, you’re going to see a lot more of this — and not just by Russians,” Nye said.
Matthew Rojansky, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, said the U.S. has a wide range of options, including doing the same kind of hacking to Russia. But this kind of electronic interference is, internationally, a new phenomenon.
“Unlike, for example, the nuclear realm or the conventional military realm where there is a clear ladder of escalation and a clear rule of deterrence ... we don’t actually know what the rules of deterrence are,” Rojansky said.
Complicating matters is the wild-card factor of the incoming Trump administration.
“If the new administration strongly disagrees or they feel that this issue has been turned into a political issue by the outgoing administration, then I think the United States overall is in a much weaker position,” he said.
But the fact that the Obama administration has addressed the issue directly may force the hand of President-elect Donald Trump.
“The fact that the FBI is now on board I think speaks volumes,” said Mietek Boduszynski, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer who is now an assistant professor of politics and international relations at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
“At the very least, I think in a political sense, the president [Obama] wants to set up a situation and maybe an investigation that will put President-elect Trump in a position where he won’t be able to ignore this and will have to deal with it. I think that’s probably the goal, at the very least,” Boduszynski said.
One thing is clear: Obama blames the cutthroat competition between political parties in the United States for providing other nations an opportunity to disrupt the political process. He quoted a political poll — though not by name, calling it only a “pretty credible source” — saying 37 percent of Republican voters approve of Putin.
“Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave,” Obama said, of Americans in large numbers giving a thumbs-up to the former head of Russia’s KGB.
“And how did that happen? It happened in part because for too long, everything that happens in this town, everything that’s said is seen through the lens of ‘does this help or hurt us relative to Democrats or relative to President Obama,’ “ he said. “And unless that changes, we’re going to continue to be vulnerable to foreign influence, because we’ve lost track of what it is that we’re about and what we stand for.”
Watch: Obama on US Involvement in Syria
Obama also took questions on the war in Syrian, conceding it has been “one of the hardest issues I’ve faced.” The world, he said, “is united in horror at the savage assault by the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies on the city of Aleppo.”
“This blood and these atrocities are on their hands,” Obama said, making clear he was referring to leaders in Moscow, Damascus and Tehran. He was speaking just hours after the Syrian government suspended the evacuation of civilians and fighters from the last rebel-held portions of Aleppo city, leaving the fate of tens of thousands of people highly uncertain.
Russian hacking allegations and Syria dominated questions during the nearly 90-minute news conference.
But Obama also discussed highlights from his eight years in office.
- Cut the unemployment rate, from nearly 10 percent when he entered office in 2009 to 4.6 percent last month, the lowest in nearly a decade.
- Added “more than 15 million new jobs.”
- Insured nearly 90 percent of Americans through the Affordable Care Act. He said 670,000 people selected a health plan on HealthCare.gov Thursday — the deadline for being covered in 2017 — marking the busiest day for the website.
- Cut U.S. dependence on foreign oil by more than half, doubled production of renewable energy.
- Enacted Wall Street reforms.
- Nearly tripled of the stock market.
- Reduced involvement of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, from 180,000 troops to 15,000.
- Killed al-Qaida founder Osama Bin Laden in 2011.
- Obtained Iran nuclear deal.
- Restarted relations with Cuba.
- Reached a climate agreement with nearly 200 nations.
VOA's National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin, Jesusemen Oni, and Elizabeth Cherneff contributed to this report.