US President Barack Obama said Friday he had told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin back in September to “cut it out” or face consequences for the hackings into major American institutions, but had refrained from responding aggressively publicly before polling day as he did not want to risk an even greater attack and appear to be taking sides in the election.
Not anymore. Russia will pay a price. “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 addressing reporters at his annual year-end news conference.
He added, repeating what he said in a radio interview earlier, the retaliation will be carried out 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.”
Obama defended his earlier restraint, after the hackings were discovered and Russia involvement was established last summer, saying, “In this hyper-partisan atmosphere … when anything that was said by me or anybody in the White House would immediately be seen through a partisan lens, I wanted to make sure that everybody understood we were playing this thing straight -- that we weren’t trying to advantage one side or another.”
But that did not stop him taking it straight to Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in China, in September as “the most effective way to ensure that that didn’t happen was to talk to him directly and tell him to cut it out, and there were going to be some serious consequences if he didn’t.”
Obama said the threat worked, and there “we did not see further tampering of the election process”. But the stolen data had been passed on to WikiLeaks, which began to release them in a daily dump in the late stage of the campaign.
Hillary Clinton has called the hacking as an attack on the US and blamed it and FBI director James Comey’s letter to the Congress about new evidence in the investigation into her private email server, for her defeat in the elections.
President Obama also addressed the horrific situation in Aleppo, Syria. Asked if he felt any “personal moral responsibility” for it, he said chose a course of action that was in the best interest of the US given the circumstances.
“Unless we were all in and willing to take over Syria, we were going to have problems, and that everything else was tempting because we wanted to do something and it sounded like the right thing to do, but it was going to be impossible to do this on the cheap,” he said.
Obama has been criticised for failing to act against the Assad government for crossing a red-line he drew for it on the use of chemical weapons. He had balked, citing lack of Congressional sanction. That was technically correct, but only as an excuse.
Asked about President-elect Donald Trump accepting a congratulatory call from the President of Taiwan, which has angered the Chinese and caused concern even in the US, Obama indicated Trump should hold off till he is fully in charged, and briefed.
In a subtle rap on the knuckle for Trump and his stir-the-pot advisers, Obama said “one China is at the heart of their conception as a nation … if you are going to upend this understanding (US recognition of that centrality of the issue), you have to have thought through what the consequences are, because the Chinese will not treat that the way they’ll treat some other issues”.