By Katie Bo Williams - 12-29-16 14:09 PM EST
The Obama administration on Thursday announced a slate of economic sanctions against Russia in retaliation for a widespread hacking campaign geared at interfering in the U.S. presidential election.
The sanctions target two of Russia's main intelligence organizations, as well as six individuals implicated in the campaign.
Both the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor to the KGB, and the GRU, Russia's military intelligence operation, were targeted.
"All Americans should be alarmed by Russia's actions," Obama said in a statement, adding that the hacks "could only have been directed by the highest levels of the Russian government."
"Moreover, our diplomats have experienced an unacceptable level of harassment in Moscow by Russian security services and police over the last year. Such activities have consequences."
To levy the sanctions, Obama modified a 2015 executive order giving the president the authority to levy sanctions against foreign actors who carry out cyberattacks against the U.S.
The changes gave the president the authority to sanction individuals and entities "responsible for tampering, altering, or causing the misappropriation of information with the purpose or effect of interfering with or undermining election processes or institutions."
The original order allows the Treasury Department to freeze the assets of individuals or entities who used digital means to damage U.S. critical infrastructure or engage in economic espionage. It was used as the "stick" in negotiations over a highly publicized 2015 agreement with China that neither nation would hack the other for economic gain.
But officials concluded in the fall that the order does not cover the kind of covert influence operation that the intelligence community believes Russia carried out during the election - and internal wrangling over how best to adapt the order to fit the charges reportedly delayed the announcement.
Reports indicate that the retaliation measures also include some form of covert cyber action - which officials have publicly hinted for months were a possibility.
Obama alluded to covert action in a statement, saying, "These actions are not the sum total of our response to Russia's aggressive activities. We will continue to take a variety of actions at a time and place of our choosing, some of which will not be publicized."
Obama has been under fierce pressure to respond to Russia over the Intelligence Community's (IC) assessment that the Kremlin was behind the theft and release of emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta and other Democratic political organizations.
The IC in October made an official announcement blaming Russia for "interfering" in the U.S. election. Subsequent leaks from anonymous officials have said that the CIA believes the campaign was an explicit attempt by Russian President Vladimir Putin to ensure Donald Trump's victory.
But despite calls from all corners to establish a firm deterrent to the kind of influence campaign undertaken by Moscow, the White House moved cautiously.
"The debate, I think, within the [Obama] administration has always been: Will steps risk too much of an escalation?" the leading Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, said in an interview with The Atlantic earlier this week.
The U.S. throughout the fall was engaged in tense, fragile cease-fire talks with Russia over Syria.
But critics have characterized Russia's attempt to meddle in the election as an "unprecedented" attack on American democracy - one that demanded a response.
Cyber policy experts have argued that covert cyber actions would not be enough. The U.S. needed to respond to Russia publicly to signal to other nations that interfering in the U.S democratic process carries a high risk.
Some - like Schiff - say Obama was too cautious.
"I think the process of sanctioning Russia should have begun far earlier, and we should have worked with our European allies to impose costs on Russia," Schiff said in the interview Tuesday. "That would have also telegraphed to the American people how serious this was."
"The impact has been inviting too much Russian interference because there hasn't been enough of a pushback. I think [the Obama administration] have erred too much on the side of caution. And that has ended up costing us."
Democrats had urged Obama to respond before he cedes the White House to Trump on Jan. 20, fearing that the president-elect would take no action. Trump has famously praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and expressed a desire for warmer relations with the Kremlin.
Some Republicans, meanwhile, also called for retaliation, but have argued that the response should come from the new administration.
"Let the new Congress and the new president deal with Russia, pass new sanctions, much tougher than the ones we already have," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Wednesday, arguing that "you need to hit Russia in a sustained fashion."
The president-elect has continued to deny Russian involvement in the election, treating any suggestion to that effect as an attack on the legitimacy of his forthcoming presidency.
Obama has similarly been under pressure to provide documentation backing up the IC's claims that Russia was involved.
"If the CIA Director [John] Brennan and others at the top are serious about turning over evidence ... they should do that," Trump aide Kellyanne Conway said earlier this month. "They should not be leaking to the media. If there's evidence, let's see it."
- Updated at 2:16 p.m.