TALLIN: US Senator John McCain, left, speaks during a joint news conference with the Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas. – AP

WASHINGTON: US 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 US officials on an imminent response that would ensure the US takes action against Russia before President-elect Donald Trump takes office.

“We have to sanction Russia for these cyber attacks (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-SC, in their visits to some of Russia’s 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 US presidential election. US 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 US 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 US commitment to the Baltics, saying the relationship with the three former Soviet states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – “will not change” under the new administration.

‘Bipartisan sanctions’
“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 US 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 cyber attacks.

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 cyber security for Steptoe & Johnson LLP. Baker said that order was primarily aimed at cyber espionage, such as 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 include election systems. A presidential policy directive in 2013 identified 16 sectors that are considered critical infrastructure, including energy, financial services and health care. The US 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 affect critical infrastructure. More important, in this case, it would allow for a response to a cyber attack against election systems.

‘Tools to respond’
And while Trump could change back any amended or new order allowing for the US to impose sanctions on entities involved in a cyber attack 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 on 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 the election-season cyber attacks. Russia’s neighbors have long suffered the wrath of its hackers, whose actions have frequently complemented Moscow’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. – AP