Assessing How the Obama Administration Handled the Russian Story

The Washington Post has an important story today about how the Obama administration handled the intelligence they were receiving on Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election. This has been a source of concern for many over the last few months and, with the publication of this story, people like Charles Pierce have let loose their frustrations and accused Obama of “choking.”

While I share that frustration to a certain extent, I also think it is important to dig in a little deeper and make sure that we’re not infusing our view with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. Therefore, I’d like to explore the three questions the Obama administration faced at the time.

1. What did they know and when did they know it?

2. How to respond to Russia?

3. What to tell the public?

On the first question, the Washington Post starts out by describing an extremely secret memo prepared for the President in August by the CIA.

…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.

But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

There are a few things to keep in mind about that. As we’ve learned over the course of the last few months, CIA intelligence reports are meant to inform, but aren’t necessarily verifiable in the way the prosecutorial arm at the FBI requires. That is at least a partial explanation as to why there wasn’t agreement between all of the intelligence sources at the time about the confidence level associated with this information. As the Washington Post story goes on to explain:

Despite the intelligence the CIA had produced, other agencies were slower to endorse a conclusion that Putin was personally directing the operation and wanted to help Trump. “It was definitely compelling, but it was not definitive,” said one senior administration official. “We needed more.”

Some of the most critical technical intelligence on Russia came from another country, officials said. Because of the source of the material, the NSA was reluctant to view it with high confidence.

Nevertheless, this was Obama’s response to that information in August:

Obama instructed aides to pursue ways to deter Moscow and proceed along three main paths: Get a high-confidence assessment from U.S. intelligence agencies on Russia’s role and intent; shore up any vulnerabilities in state-run election systems; and seek bipartisan support from congressional leaders for a statement condemning Moscow and urging states to accept federal help.

On the administration’s attempts to shore up state election systems and their efforts to get bipartisan support for a statement, we already know what happened. Republicans accused the administration of trying to take over state responsibilities in elections and Mitch McConnell threatened to accuse them of partisan politics if they attempted to go public with the intelligence.

On the second question about how to respond to Russia, the picture is a lot more fuzzy. If the focus prior to the election was to stop their interference, the question that seemed to loom larger than anything else for the administration was the possibility that Russia would actually hack vote tallies. There are those who think the administration is responsible for ensuring that didn’t happen.

Those closest to Obama defend the administration’s response to Russia’s meddling. They note that by August it was too late to prevent the transfer to WikiLeaks and other groups of the troves of emails that would spill out in the ensuing months. They believe that a series of warnings — including one that Obama delivered to Putin in September — prompted Moscow to abandon any plans of further aggression, such as sabotage of U.S. voting systems.

But Pierce’s suggestion that the administration choked actually comes from a quote in the Washington Post story that specifically applies to this question about how to respond to Russia.

“It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend,” said a former senior Obama administration official involved in White House deliberations on Russia. “I feel like we sort of choked.”…

“The punishment did not fit the crime,” said Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia for the Obama administration from 2012 to 2014. “Russia violated our sovereignty, meddling in one of our most sacred acts as a democracy — electing our president. The Kremlin should have paid a much higher price for that attack. And U.S. policymakers now — both in the White House and Congress — should consider new actions to deter future Russian interventions.”

The question that most arouses Pierce’s anger is the third one about what to tell the public. He says:

This is where they choked. The American people had damned close to an absolute right to the information their government already had. The most fundamental act of citizenship is the right to cast an informed vote. The idea that the Obama administration withheld the fact that the Russians were ratfcking the election in order to help elect a vulgar talking yam is a terrible condemnation of the whole No Drama Obama philosophy.

I get his anger. And not to put too fine a point on things, let’s break down the part that I bolded. On the part about the Russians ratfcking the election, we were told:

When U.S. spy agencies reached unanimous agreement in late September that the interference was a Russian operation directed by Putin, Obama directed spy chiefs to prepare a public statement summarizing the intelligence in broad strokes.

You can go back and review the joint statement issued by the Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence on October 7, almost a month prior to the election. What that statement stopped short of saying is that the Russians interfered in order to help elect Trump. Here is where it is important to not inject our 20/20 hindsight. We now know that not only did they try to help Trump, it is possible that the Trump campaign coordinated with them. But as the Washington Post reported last December, at the time, there was not a consensus among intelligence agencies about what the Russians were trying to accomplish.

So we knew in early October that the Russians were hacking the computer systems of individual people and political institutions and that was the source of the dumps from Wikileaks, DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0. Why didn’t that arouse our anger? It is partially because at the time, our media was obsessed with the story about Clinton’s emails. But there was also this:

The [October 7] statement was issued around 3:30 p.m., timed for maximum media coverage. Instead, it was quickly drowned out. At 4 p.m., The Post published a story about crude comments Trump had made about women that were captured on an “Access Hollywood” tape. Half an hour later, WikiLeaks published its first batch of emails stolen from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.

In other words, Democrats got more interested in the fact that Trump bragged about grabbing pussy and the Republicans with the story that Podesta once had dinner with a pagan. The fact that Russia was responsible for the hacking got buried. Was that yet another plot by Putin? You tell me.

As I said, I understand the anger people feel that we didn’t have the full story about what Russia (and perhaps the Trump campaign) did prior to the election. And it’s fair game to review what the Obama administration did with what they knew at the time. I’m sure that if they had it to do over again, they’d do some things differently. But there’s plenty of blame to go around…not the least of which can be pointed at the way the media handled things, the fact that the Republicans refused to cooperate, and how we let ourselves get distracted.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.