Barack Obama confronted Vladimir Putin over Russian hacking during the US election, telling him to “cut it out”, the US President said during his last news conference.
“In early September, when I saw President Putin, I felt the most effective way was to talk to him directly. Tell him to cut it out and there were going to be serious consequences if he didn’t,” Mr Obama said on Friday.
“Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin. This is a pretty hierarchical operation,” he added
“Last I checked there’s not a lot of debate and democratic deliberation, particularly when it comes to policies directed at the United States,’ leaving little doubt where he thought responsibility should rest.”
Mr Obama continued: “I will let you make that determination whether there are high level Russian officials who go off rogue and decide to tamper with the U.S. election process without Vladimir Putin knowing about it.”
The President defended the White House’s handling of the scandal, saying that after his administration was alerted to the hacks of the Democratic National Committee, his first priority was to ensure a smooth election process and to avoid accusations of political bias.
“We didn’t want this to become a political football,” he said. “We handled it the way it should have been handled. We allowed law enforcement to do its job. We briefed everyone involved. We announced it – not through me, but through the intelligence agencies. Then we allowed you and the American public to make an assessment.”
Mr Obama said there was no evidence that hacking had changed the outcome of the election, adding that Russia was only a threat to the US “if we lose track of our values. The Russians can’t change us or significantly weaken us. They are a smaller economy, they don’t produce anything people want to buy apart from oil and arms,” he said.
Earlier it emerged that Hillary Clinton had suggested that Mr Putin directed Russian hackers to interfere in the election because he had “personal beef” to settle with her.
Breaking her silence about the hacking scandal, Mrs Clinton said Mr Putin had harboured a grudge against her since she publicly raised concerns about the conduct of Russia’s 2011 parliamentary elections.
Mr Putin accused Mrs Clinton, who was US Secretary of State at the time, of “giving the signal” for a wave of anti-government protests that swept Moscow following the disputed poll.
“Putin publicly blamed me for the outpouring of outrage by his own people, and that is the direct line between what he said back then and what he did in this election,” Mrs Clinton told a group of her campaign donors, The New York Times reported.
Russian hackers used the same techniques to attack the Republican National Committee, security officials told The Wall Street Journal. The Kremlin denied the accusations.
“At this point they need to either stop talking about this or finally present some sort of proof,” Mr Putin’s spokesman said.
Reports yesterday said FBI director James B. Comey and James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, agreed with the CIA’s assessment that Russia intervened in the election in part to help Mr Trump win the presidency.
A former British general warned that a “tit-for-tat” cyber war between the US and Russia could escalate into attacks on crucial infrastructure including Britain’s financial system and the electricity grid.
General Lord Richards, a former head of the defence staff, said Mr Obama would be aware that cyber warfare is a “two-edged weapon” and “your opponent can do the same sort of things – and worse – back to you”.
“Taking President Obama at face value – and I assume he has good evidence to substantiate his claim – then I imagine they are going to have to think very carefully about getting into some tit-for-tat operation with the Russians,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“You never really quite know where it’s going to end up. Are they going to start having a go at our financial system, electricity? You have got to be very, very careful and that is why he has been rather cagey, I think, in choosing his words the way he has.”
The Kremlin denies the accusations of hacking and has dismissed Mr Obama’s claims as “nonsense.”