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Story highlights

Obama administration officials have debated how to respond to Russian hacks

But they kept arriving at reasons not to respond publicly

(CNN) —  

For months, Obama administration officials have debated how to respond to Russian hacks they believed were intended to undermine the US elections. But they kept arriving at reasons not to respond publicly.

In addition to a fear of sparking a wider cyber-conflict and an attempt to save talks with Russia over Syria, the administration did not want to give Donald Trump reason to cry foul following what they were certain would be a Hillary Clinton victory.

Now it’s Democrats who are suggesting that the elections were stolen, in part at least, by Russian hacking efforts aimed to hurt Clinton and boost Trump.

Democrats think it’s too little too late.

Obama administration officials dispute that the internal debate was slowed by anything other than the deliberate work of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. They say that the administration had to let the investigation take its course before making a policy response.

CNN discussions with multiple administration, law enforcement and intelligence officials tell a different story.

By July, law enforcement and intelligence agencies were sure that Russian intelligence hackers had breached the Democratic National Committee. A debate began inside the administration about what to do next.

A month earlier, the hackers had released an opposition file on Trump that had been stolen from the Democrats.

The US and many other nations use cyberhacking to spy on each other. The Russian actions, administration officials determined, had crossed the line because they were releasing documents the administration believed were intended to undermine the US elections.

The good, bad and ugly of warmer US-Russia relations

Over the next three months, during a series of meetings at the White House and on conference calls, national security officials at the White House and other government agencies debated over how to calibrate an appropriate response.

Some officials in the US intelligence agencies warned that the US risked starting a wider cyber-conflict with Russia in which the US had a lot more to lose because more of the US infrastructure and economy is dependent on the Internet, and much of it is vulnerable to attack.

Some State Department officials also worried about the risk to ongoing efforts to make a deal with Russia over Syria. The on-again, off-again talks continued during the summer as the US wrestled with what to do about the hacks.

By the fall, as WikiLeaks kept releasing documents only on Democrats, Obama administration officials also grew confident that the Russians were trying to hurt Clinton’s campaign – and therefore trying to help Trump get elected.

Other websites connected to Russian intelligence published documents stolen from Republicans including former Secretary of State Colin Powell, but they, too, were mostly damaging to Hillary Clinton.

White House officials worried that publicly outing Russia would appear to be an effort to help Clinton, and the deliberations coincided with Trump’s complaints about a rigged election. Administration officials were sure Trump would lose in November and they were worried about giving him any reason to question the election results.

Trump rewrites US foreign policy on the fly

In October, a month before the presidential election, the Director of National Intelligence and the Homeland Security Department for the first time publicly attributed the hacks to Russia.

Some Democrats had been pushing for the move for months.

On Tuesday, the White House defended that public statement from the intelligence community as appropriate. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that a “proportional response” was appropriate but at the time the concern was on protecting the integrity of the election.

“The President made clear, we made clear, that a proportional response to that was appropriate. But the President’s first concern, and the first steps that were undertaken by the US government were to ensure that the equipment and systems that were used to register voters, allow voters to cast ballots and to ensure that those ballots were counted, were protected,” Earnest said.

Gap on Russia hacking conclusions between intelligence, FBI

Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the Obama administration didn’t act soon enough.

“I do think it was a mistake,” he said. “I think it was a mistake earlier frankly not to react more forcefully when North Korea hacked us. I think those kind of – that lack of deterrence invited the Russians to meddle and consider they could do this with impunity.”

Now, with Trump about a month from taking office, Obama administration officials are working to prepare a range of possible responses that President Barack Obama could use before he leaves the White House to retaliate against Russia – responses President-elect Trump will likely be left to answer for.