Barack Obama received an "intelligence bombshell" from the CIA last August warning him that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was directing a hacking campaign to tip the presidential election in Donald Trump's favour, the Washington Post reported on Friday.
Based on interviews with more than three dozen current and former senior US officials, the Post's investigation is likely to renew questions about how Putin's sneak attack on US democracy was able to happen on Obama's watch. "By the way," Trump tweeted on Thursday, "if Russia was working so hard on the 2016 election, it all took place during the Obama Admin. Why didn't they stop them?"
The Obama administration also considered retaliatory options, including the release of intelligence that might embarrass Putin and planting “cyberweapons” in Russia’s infrastructure, but eventually settled on something less ambitious, the paper reported.
Evidence of Russian meddling mounted as the election neared. In July 2016 the FBI had opened an investigation of contacts between Russian officials and Trump associates, and almost 20,000 emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee were dumped online by WikiLeaks.
Trump himself told a press conference: “They probably have her” – Hillary Clinton’s – “33,000 emails. I hope they do. They probably have her 33,000 emails that she lost and deleted, because you’d see some beauties there.”
Sourcing deep inside the Russian government detailed Vladimir Putin's direct involvement in a cybercampaign to disrupt and discredit the US presidential race
The following month, according to the Post, an envelope with "eyes only" instructions was sent by courier from the CIA to the White House. Only Obama and three senior aides were permitted to see it. "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 US presidential race," the paper says.
Putin had given specific instructions, the CIA report added, aimed at defeating or at least damaging Clinton and boosting Trump. The Post says the CIA package came with instructions that it be returned immediately after it was read and that meetings in the situation room followed the same protocols as planning sessions for the raid that killed Osama bin Laden to avoid leaks.
According to the Post account, over the next five months the administration debated numerous ways to respond, ranging from cyberattacks on Russian infrastructure to the publication of material gathered by the CIA that might embarrass Putin to potentially crippling sanctions.
But eventually, some time after Trump’s stunning election win, Obama settled on “a modest package” combining measures that had been drawn up to punish Russia for other issues with economic sanctions “so narrowly targeted that even those who helped design them describe their impact as largely symbolic”.
Obama approved the planting of cyberweapons in Russia's infrastructure, digital bombs that could be detonated if the US found itself in an escalating exchange with Moscow
The paper adds: “Obama also approved a previously undisclosed covert measure that authorised planting cyber weapons in Russia’s infrastructure, the digital equivalent of bombs that could be detonated if the United States found itself in an escalating exchange with Moscow. The project, which Obama approved in a covert-action finding, was still in its planning stages when Obama left office. It would be up to President Trump to decide whether to use the capability.”
On October 7th, 2016, meanwhile, the White House issued a delicately worded statement saying that the US intelligence community was "confident" that the Russian government was behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee. But just an hour later, revelations broke of a video tape in which Trump boasted about groping women, quickly followed by a WikiLeaks dump of emails hacked from the Clinton campaign's chairman, John Podesta. The media's attention focused elsewhere.
Trump's alleged ties to Russia have received so much attention, including investigations by a special counsel and two congressional committees, that the adequacy of the Obama administration's response has largely escaped scrutiny.
Obama and his senior advisers were concerned that any pre-election response could trigger an escalation from Putin, including a cyberattack on voting systems before and on election day, the Post writes. There were also concerns that any action would be interpreted as politically motivated on behalf of Obama's fellow Democrat, potentially fuelling Trump's repeated claims that the election would be rigged.
We set out from a first-order principle that required us to defend the integrity of the vote
Denis McDonough, who was Obama's chief of staff, defended the administration's actions. "We set out from a first-order principle that required us to defend the integrity of the vote," he told the Post. "Importantly, we did that. It's also important to establish what happened and what they attempted to do, so as to ensure that we take the steps necessary to stop it from happening again."
But others in the administration suggest that more could have been done. A former senior official involved in White House deliberations on Russia, who was not named by the Post, is quoted as saying: "It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend. I feel like we sort of choked."
“The punishment did not fit the crime,” the former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said of the American sanctions.
Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher school of law and diplomacy at Tufts University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the story underscored what was "always Obama's greatest weakness as a foreign-policy president".
This is a case where Obama clearly moved too slowly and, I think, failed to appreciate the magnitude of what was going on
“To his credit he was always wary [to] first do no harm, which led him to not react immediately to crises and not necessarily want to take retaliatory action,” Drezner said. “But this is a case where he clearly moved too slowly and, I think, failed to appreciate the magnitude of what was going on.”
Although Drezner said there was validity to the administration’s concern of appearing partial to Clinton, and of acting in a way that might cast scrutiny over the legitimacy of her presidency had she won, Obama could nonetheless have announced some countermeasures against Russia at an earlier stage aimed at limiting Moscow’s aggression.
He also laid blame on Republicans, such as the majority leader in the US Senate, Mitch McConnell, for reportedly questioning the intelligence presented to them providing evidence of Russian interference in the election.
“I think, 15-20 years ago, the very fact that this intrusion had taken place would have generated significant political blowback,” Drezner said. “But conservatives and Trump supporters viewed Russia as an ally rather than an actor intruding on American sovereignty. And that’s on us. That’s not on Russia.”