The Obama administration didn't respond more forcefully to Russian hacking before the presidential election because they didn't want to appear to be interfering in the election and they thought that Hillary Clinton was going to win and a potential cyber war with Russia wasn't worth it, multiple high-level government officials told NBC News.
"They thought she was going to win, so they were willing to kick the can down the road," said one U.S official familiar with the level of Russian hacking.
The administration did take action in response to the hack prior to the election. In September, President Obama privately confronted Vladimir Putin about the hacks at the G-20 summit in China. He warned the Russian President of unspecified consequences if the hacks continued.
On October 7, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued an unprecedented joint statement pointing the finger at Russia, saying hacks of U.S. political groups and individual politicians could only have been done with the authorization of "Russia's senior most" Russian officials and that its intent was to undermine the integrity of the election.
Democrats and Republicans alike have criticized the Obama administration for not being more forceful.
"I think it is a legitimate question and I think given the stakes at the national level the question deserves an answer," said ret. Adm. James Stavridis when asked by NBC News about the level of the administration's response. "In retrospect it certainly seems as though it was a mistake not to call the Russians sooner and respond to them in a very forceful way."
An administration official, in turn, criticized the news media for focusing more on the leaked documents than on the Russian covert operation that hacked into political entities to steal the documents.
Administration officials pointed out that the day the intelligence assessment was made public was the same day a tape was leaked revealing Trump's lewd conversation with Billy Bush. Eleven days later, at an October press conference, Obama was not asked a single question about the Russian hacks.
"We used the same playbook we did with Sony," an administration official said, referring to the North Korean cyber attack on the Hollywood studio. The difference, he said, was that the media and the public was focused elsewhere.