WASHINGTON — U.S. senators visiting eastern European allies to discuss security issues called for sanctions against Russia for interfering in the presidential election by hacking American political sites and email accounts. Their demands came amid ongoing discussions among U.S. officials on an imminent response to alleged Russian meddling that would ensure the U.S. takes action before President-elect Donald Trump takes office.
"We have to sanction Russia for these cyberattacks (and) send a clear message to the incoming administration that there is a lot of bipartisan support in Congress for going after this," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., told The Associated Press by phone from Latvia.
Klobuchar joined Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in their visits to Russian neighbors, the Baltic States, Ukraine, and Georgia as well as Montenegro.
Russian officials have denied the Obama administration's accusation that the highest-levels of the Russian government were involved in trying to influence the U.S. presidential election. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia's goal was to help Trump win — an assessment Trump has dismissed as ridiculous.
The Obama administration has said the U.S. will respond at a time and with a means of its choosing, and that all responses may not be publicly known.
The lawmakers on Wednesday reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the Baltics, saying the relationship with the three former Soviet states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — "will not change" under the new administration.
"I predict there will be bipartisan sanctions coming that will hit Russia hard, particularly (President Vladimir) Putin as an individual," Graham told reporters in Riga, the Latvian capital. He didn't elaborate on possible sanctions.
The U.S. has already sanctioned Russia over its annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine, but it could potentially use an April 2015 executive order allowing for the use of sanctions to combat cyberattacks.
A year after the order was issued, Democratic Party officials learned their systems were attacked after discovering malicious software on their computers.
But the executive order "(isn't) well suited to the Russian activities," said Stewart Baker, a partner specializing in cybersecurity for Steptoe & Johnson LLP. Baker said that order was primarily aimed at cyberespionage, for example spying by the Chinese military for commercial advantage.
The order covers a response to attacks on critical infrastructure, and Klobuchar called on the administration to amend it to also include election systems, which are not considered critical infrastructure.
A presidential policy directive in 2013 identified 16 sectors that are considered critical infrastructure, including energy, financial services and health care. The U.S. Homeland Security Department is mulling over adding election systems to that list.
The designation places responsibilities on the secretary of Homeland Security to conduct comprehensive assessments of vulnerabilities and track as well as provide information on emerging and imminent threats that may impact critical infrastructure.
More importantly, in this case, it would allow for a response to a cyberattack against election systems.
And while Trump could change back any amended or new order allowing for the U.S. to impose sanctions on entities involved in a cyberattack on election systems, "he would have a lot of explaining to do," Klobuchar said. "The executive order gives tools to respond."
Speaking to journalists at his Palm Beach, Florida, estate Wednesday, Trump was not addressing the issue of sanctions, but said: "We don't have the kind of security we need." He added: "Nobody knows what's going on."
Trump said he has not spoken with senators calling for sanctions, but believes "we have to get on with our lives."
President Barack Obama has ordered intelligence officials to conduct a broad review of election-season cyberattacks.
Russia's neighbors have long suffered the wrath of its hackers, whose actions have frequently complemented the government's political and military aims. In 2014, Ukraine's Central Election Commission was targeted by a pro-Russian hacking group.
The Russian Embassy did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
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