WASHINGTON — Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, is calling on President Obama to retaliate against Russia for interference in the presidential election — meddling the California congressman says is designed both to "sow discord" in American politics and to help elect Donald Trump.
"What makes this new and troubling is not just the intelligence-gathering of hacking into a political party," Schiff told Capital Download on Wednesday, "but the attempt to interfere with the election process by dumping information in an effort, I think, to be disruptive, to sow discord in the United States, to cause people to question both the fairness of elections and maybe even the election results, as well as to potentially tip things in the direction of a favored candidate by the Kremlin."
Schiff, 56, who has served on the Intelligence Committee for a decade, told USA TODAY's weekly video newsmaker series it already is clear from publicly disclosed information that computer hacking of the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and state election offices in Arizona and Illinois can be traced to the Russian government itself or hackers sanctioned by it.
But the president this week declined to threaten Moscow or even directly declare it responsible.
"We've had problems with cyber-intrusions from Russia in the past, from other countries in the past," Obama said after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G20 conference in China. But he didn't suggest retaliation. "Our goal is not to suddenly in the cyber-arena duplicate a cycle of escalation that we saw when it comes to other arms races in the past, but rather to start instituting some norms so that everybody's acting responsibly."
Schiff called on the administration to "really call out Russia on this" and consider taking additional action in coordination with European countries that also have been targeted. That could include indicating the hackers — a step the U.S. has taken against some Iranian and Chinese hackers — and imposing sanctions against Russian institutions or individuals, restricting their access to assets and ability to travel abroad.
"We know at least two states have been the subject of hacking already, so the question is not whether they have the ability, only whether they have the will to do it," he said of the prospect of tampering with election returns in November. "Right now, because they paid so little price for the hack of the DNC and the DCCC, there's little to deter them."
Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced to step down as the party's national chair on the eve of the Democratic convention in July because of the leak of hacked emails.
The administration may be reluctant to act while Secretary of State John Kerry is engaged in negotiations with Russia over Syria, Schiff says. "The other factor the administration may be considering is ... would it give the appearance that they were trying to tip the scales for Hillary Clinton? I don't think that concern over the appearance ought to outweigh the fact that the American people really have a right to know and a need to know if an adversarial power is trying to tip the scales of an American election."
Schiff says there's no question which candidate Moscow prefers. "They see Donald Trump belittling NATO; they see him saying that he might recognize the illegal annexation of Crimea and that he might favor doing away with sanctions on Russia. So what’s not to like for Putin?"