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White House Official Suggests Putin Authorized Hacking Of U.S. Election

White House Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes
White House Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes

WASHINGTON -- A senior White House official has suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally authorized an alleged Russian hacking operation aimed at meddling in the U.S. electoral process, while the top U.S. diplomat said more facts in the case could soon be made public.

Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama, said in a December 15 interview with MSNBC that the cyberattacks, which U.S. intelligence has accused Russia of directing, would have required Putin's approval.

"I don't think things happen in the Russian government of this consequence without Vladimir Putin knowing about it," Rhodes said in the interview, though he did not offer evidence of the Russian president's possible involvement.

His comment followed recent media reports citing unidentified U.S. intelligence officials as saying that a CIA assessment had determined that Russia's aim was indeed to help President-elect Donald Trump defeat Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in the November 8 election.

Both the Kremlin and Trump have rejected the allegation.

In October, Obama authorized the U.S. director of national security and the Department of Homeland Security to issue a statement saying that they are "confident" the Russian government "directed" the hacking of e-mails of individuals and groups, including political organizations.

Though the statement did not name the targets, it was a clear reference to cyber-breaches of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Clinton's campaign, among others. Leaked e-mails from those intrusions are widely seen as having damaged Clinton in the election.

The October statement did not name Putin or suggest that the alleged Russian effort was aimed at helping Trump, who has pledged to seek a warming of ties with Moscow that have been badly strained over the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

The televised comments by Rhodes came less than 24 hours after an NBC News report that U.S. intelligence officials believe with a "high level of confidence" that Putin was personally involved in Russian efforts to interfere in the election.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on December 15 called the report "stupidity."

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters on December 15 that he is confident the U.S. administration in the coming weeks will disclose further details on the alleged Russian hacking.

Kerry declined to comment on Putin's potential involvement or the possibility that the cyberattacks were aimed at helping Trump.

But he said he believes Obama's administration will soon disclose more details about the cyber-intrusions.

"Now we have to get out the facts, and I'm confident we will in the months ahead," Kerry said.

Trump is set to take office on January 20.

Kerry defended Obama, who campaigned for Clinton in the election, against critics who have said he should have come out more forcefully on the alleged Russian hacking campaign ahead of the vote. Kerry cited the public statement accusing Moscow of directing the effort.

"The president understood and made clear it's a serious matter. It was a serious matter then, and it’s a serious matter now as even more information comes out," Kerry said.

With reporting by AP and Reuters
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.