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.”