WaPo: Obama Knew Of Russian Meddling; Did He Drop The Ball?

Matt Vespa
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Posted: Jun 24, 2017 8:00 AM
WaPo: Obama Knew Of Russian Meddling; Did He Drop The Ball?

The Washington Post had a lengthy piece about the Obama White House’s behind-the-scenes activities to combat the Russian meddling during the 2016 election. First, they knew about the meddling far in advance. Second, they seem to have fallen into the same decision-making process they exhibited over Syria: paralysis by analysis. There was always the fear that it would look too political. That actually mentioning the meddling might force Russian President Vladimir Putin to do something more damaging in response. Putin reportedly ordered an interference campaign, according to a highly confident assessment by four American intelligence agencies (via WaPo):

Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.

[…]

At that point, the outlines of the Russian assault on the U.S. election were increasingly apparent. Hackers with ties to Russian intelligence services had been rummaging through Democratic Party computer networks, as well as some Republican systems, for more than a year. In July, the FBI had opened an investigation of contacts between Russian officials and Trump associates. And on July 22, nearly 20,000 emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee were dumped online by WikiLeaks.

[…]

Over that five-month interval, the Obama administration secretly debated dozens of options for deterring or punishing Russia, including cyberattacks on Russian infrastructure, the release of CIA-gathered material that might embarrass Putin and sanctions that officials said could “crater” the Russian economy.

But in the end, in late December, Obama approved a modest package combining measures that had been drawn up to punish Russia for other issues — expulsions of 35 diplomats and the closure of two Russian compounds — with economic sanctions so narrowly targeted that even those who helped design them describe their impact as largely symbolic.

The article also exposed that the Obama administration signed off on a covert operation to plant “digital bombs” in Russian infrastructure. The makings of the plan were in the works when Obama left office. Whether it is put into action is up to the Trump administration; also, nice going leaking that, Washington Post. As noted in the piece, it was too late to stop the Wikileaks dumps, but an investigation was underway within the halls of the Obama White House. A separate intelligence group assembled by then-CIA Director John Brennan was made up of officers and analysts from CIA, NSA, and the FBI, who worked for President Obama and no more than 14 government officials.

The Post added when then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson wanted to make election systems critical infrastructure, he faced a very lukewarm reception from state officials. Even Congress wasn't convinced, with the publication adding that the meeting on the Hill over this subject with party leaders devolved into “partisan squabbling.” Democrats wanted to go public; Republicans were skeptical about the veracity of the intelligence reports.

By October, the White House was ready to release a statement about the meddling, which they did, only to be drowned out by the email dumps on Wikileaks from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta and the infamous Access Hollywood tape. If there was one thing that seems to be a source of regret for those who worked on this issue, including some congressional Democrats, was that they dropped the ball. They should have worked harder to convince the American people that this was a serious issue:

To some, Obama’s determination to avoid politicizing the Russia issue had the opposite effect: It meant that he allowed politics to shape his administration’s response to what some believed should have been treated purely as a national security threat.

[Rep. Adam] Schiff [(D-CA)] said that the administration’s justifications for inaction often left him with a sense of “cognitive dissonance.”

The administration doesn’t need congressional support to issue a statement of attribution or impose sanctions,” Schiff said in a recent interview. He said many groups inadvertently abetted Russia’s campaign, including Republicans who refused to confront Moscow and media organizations that eagerly mined the troves of hacked emails.

“Where Democrats need to take responsibility,” Schiff said, “is that we failed to persuade the country why they should care that a foreign power is meddling in our affairs.”

Other instances, where the Obama administration tripped up was not signing off or considering action items that could be taken after the ballots were counted in November of 2016. Secretary of State John Kerry drafted a memo, which included more economic sanctions, but was brushed off. Nothing happened as a result. There were also multiple times that the Obama administration warned the Russians over the meddling, and that they knew they were behind it. Putin and his crew obviously didn’t listen. They knew nothing would happen. Now, they annexed Crimea in Ukraine in 2014, which was met with sanctions that crippled its economy—an estimated four percent contraction—but it seemed they knew that only lip service would come from a lame duck president who was on his way out. If there’s another story about Obama's smart power foreign policy he embraced over the eight years of his presidency, it’s how easily the rest of the world read him, which was to our disadvantage.

Obama confronted Putin directly during a meeting of world leaders in Hangzhou, China. Accompanied only by interpreters, Obama told Putin that “we knew what he was doing and [he] better stop or else,” according to a senior aide who subsequently spoke with Obama. Putin responded by demanding proof and accusing the United States of interfering in Russia’s internal affairs.

In a subsequent news conference, Obama alluded to the exchange and issued a veiled threat. “We’re moving into a new era here where a number of countries have significant capacities,” he said. “Frankly, we’ve got more capacity than anybody both offensively and defensively.”

There were at least two other warnings.

[…]

In October, Kerry’s top aides had produced an “action memo” that included a package of retaliatory measures including economic sanctions. Knowing the White House was not willing to act before the election, the plan called for the measures to be announced almost immediately after votes had been securely cast and counted.

Kerry signed the memo and urged the White House to convene a principals meeting to discuss the plan, officials said. “The response was basically, ‘Not now,’?” one official said.

Election Day arrived without penalty for Moscow.

Obama did sign off on new sanctions, which did not have the impact of the ones imposed post-Ukraine and we booted a couple dozen Russians suspected of being intelligence agents from a couple compounds. It’s an as expected response from an effete presidency, but let’s give Obama the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it would have been insanely inappropriate to reveal such information in the tail end of an election, though what actions could have been taken afterwards is a different story. Like James Comey, the goal of trying to stay out of the politics of this thing proved to be fatal. It’s a presidential election, it doesn't get anymore political than this. Yet, if you feel that this was a national security threat, as some clearly did, you have to do what is necessary to uphold your oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Again, speaking about latter actions, post-Clinton defeat for argument’s sake. The New York Times, Bill Maher, and others have voiced their concerns and frustration in how the Trump White House doesn’t seem to care that Russia's interference campaign was a major attack on our democracy.

“If the commander-in-chief won’t defend the country against an attack by a foreign adversary, isn’t that the most impeachable offense there is?” asked Maher while interviewing Breitbart’s Alex Marlow last week. Talk about moving the goal post to try and ensnare Trump again, but the same standard could be applied Obama. Former acting CIA Director Michael Morell said that the administration did next to nothing other than say 'don't do this to us' to our Russian counterparts. If this was such an appalling attack on our democracy (we're really a constitutional federal republic), then why did the Obama administration do next to nothing prior to his exit. They may have debated and pondered what to do, but it’s arguable that they messed up. In all, besides ineffective sanctions and booting some Russians, Obama delivered a tongue lashing of Russia, calling it a smaller country that the U.S., economically and militarily. Like Ukraine, it was mostly a lecture and you wonder why this guy got rolled everywhere. 

On a side note, the Post said that “in political terms, Russia’s interference was the crime of the century, an unprecedented and largely successful destabilizing attack on American democracy.” No, it wasn’t. No vote tallies were tampered with, no election systems were hacked, and the dissemination of fake news didn’t play a pivotal role. Democrats just had their dirty laundry exposed, which mostly related to Democratic infighting, Donna Brazile handing off debate questions to the Clinton camp, and the party’s slobbering favoritism towards Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. Not a shocker, but incredibly embarrassing. In other words, it was the greatest political crime of the century because Hillary couldn’t hack it—and that’s why most roll their eyes about this Russian collusion hysteria. That, and because there’s zero evidence to suggest as much.