It Took Two to Make Russian Meddling Effective

A Washington Post report on 2016 election interference raises the question: What could Obama have done differently?

President Barack Obama extends his hand to Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 28, 2015.
President Barack Obama extends his hand to Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 28, 2015.  (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

If there is one thing The Washington Post’s story on the Obama administration’s anemic response to Russian meddling in the 2016 election makes clear, it’s that it took two to make the meddling effective.

There is a reason the tactics Russia used on the American elections—which are similar to things they’ve done in former Soviet republics and in Europe—are referred to as “asymmetric warfare”: They embody the art of leverage, of doing a lot with a little. As former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress in May, the Russians “succeeded beyond their wildest dreams and at minimal cost.” The whole operation, according to Clapper, cost a mere $200 million—a pittance in military spending terms. But the Russians used that money not the way a conventional army would, but the way a band of guerrillas would, feeling around for pressure points, and pressing—or not. Though, as Bloomberg reported this month, the Russians were clearly exploring ways to attack voting infrastructure in parts of the country, it still appears they ultimately decided not to pull the trigger, sticking instead with the hack-and-dump and the manufacturing of fake news. “It was ad hoc,” an Obama administration official told me shortly after the inauguration. “They were kind of throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what would stick.”

But there was another critical part in that equation: the wall. What the Post’s story shows is that the Obama administration—the wall—unwittingly provided the right texture for some of the attempt to stick. My conversations with former Obama administration officials in February and March mirror the Post’s reporting: As the multi-pronged attack on the election unfolded, the Obama administration’s response was slow and deliberative to the point of paralysis. There was a lag between when the Russians did something, and when it was reported to the administration. There was the fact that the administration was focused on election infrastructure but not on the fake news mill, zigging when the Russians zagged. And there was the careful attention to the details of making sure that no laws were broken in the intelligence-gathering—say, in dealing with incidental collection of data on Americans. “There was a lawyer at every meeting,” said the former administration official. “That’s partly why it was hard for us to figure out what was going on.”

And then there was Obama’s mysterious reluctance, as described by many of his advisers, “to put his thumb on the scale” and influence the election, even as he and Michelle Obama were campaigning for Hillary Clinton all over the country and coining anti-Trump memes like “Come on, man.” What difference would a thumb on the scale have made when he already had his other nine fingers on it?

Then there are the other players, the other bricks in the wall. There’s Mitch McConnell predictably shooting down anything that came as a request from Obama; and other Republicans’ shortsightedly partisan refusal to publicize the fact of the Russian attack. There’s the fumbling DNC response, the FBI’s inability to impress upon them the seriousness of the matter (former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson sarcastically testified in Congress this week that perhaps he should’ve camped outside their headquarters with a sleeping bag).

And, of course, there’s us in the media, who helped the Russians weaponize the hacked emails, while simultaneously being unable to fully make sense of the scale of what the Russians were doing, suspicious as we were of the Clinton camp leaking us stories about Putin going after Hillary. “We had the dossier, we knew of it,” one senior Clinton campaign staffer told me in February, referring to the unverified dossier put together as opposition research on Trump by a former British spy, which BuzzFeed published in January. “We pushed it to news organizations. We were shouting, we were putting out statements, and people looked at me like I had a tinfoil hat on. I don’t know what more we could’ve done.”

Obama’s meticulously overwrought response was, in effect, no response at all. Along with all the synapses firing inside a competitive, non-monolithic system, it was a weapon in the hands of the Russians. It is the way terrorists operate, turning an open system against itself—the way, for example, the 9/11 hijackers weaponized things like student visas and the freedom to travel. What the Russians were able to do with that, though, is exactly the kind of thing they have long—and sometimes fairly—accused the Americans of doing: getting a friendly leader installed in a strategically vital country.

The question is, what could Obama have done differently?

The answer is painfully obvious: He could’ve done exactly what he did after the election, but before the election. “If the U.S. government had come out and done what they did in December 2016 [in releasing an intelligence-community assessment on the interference] in July, it would’ve had an even bigger effect,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, the Russian American founder of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, which was brought in by the DNC to analyze the hack.

When Obama did make the attack public, the amount of panic and political dust kicked up by the release of the intelligence report in January, along with the congressional investigations it triggered, proved debilitating for Russian ambitions. The Russians lost their main ally in the White House, Michael Flynn, who was pushing President Trump to unilaterally lift Russia sanctions. In fact, the Trump administration imposed even more sanctions on Russia this week.

The Senate has now passed a bipartisan measure taking the power to lift sanctions away from Trump. Though it stalled in the House and will still need Trump’s signature, there’s a clear mobilization of the foreign-policy establishment inside the U.S. government against Russia. All this has unleashed a flurry of journalistic digging into the ties various members of the current administration have to Moscow. The amount of alarm in Washington has also cranked up the level of alarm in Europe, giving those governments a boost of immunity against similar kinds of electoral interference.

Now, Moscow finds itself a pariah once again, unable, at least for the time being, to extract the benefits of an American president who seems personally infatuated with Putin and got to the Oval Office with his help. Now anything Trump does vis-á-vis Russia is subject to extra scrutiny, and anything, anyone Russian has become politically toxic. This may all change once Putin and Trump meet on the sidelines of the G-20 in July—the administration has wisely avoided hosting Putin in Washington for now—and Putin butters up the American president. But that prospect remains the Russians’ only hope for now. As one close friend of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told me in Moscow, currently Trump is tied down by the American political establishment “like Gulliver by Lilliputians.”

All that because of a 25-page intelligence report. It’s not hard to imagine what things would have looked like had it been released not in January, but in September. It would have been far more effective than Obama’s telling Putin on the sidelines of another G-20 summit that month to “cut it out.” Putin knows when you mean it, and when you don’t.