Foreign Policy Blogs

Obama, the Russian Hacking, and the Folks Who Write about Them

Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin in happier times, during a G-8 meeting in Ireland in 2013. (Photo: Pete Souza)

On June 23, the Washington Post published an article online about the Obama administration’s deliberations concerning Russia’s hacking of the U.S. electoral process last year. The article, which was fairly balanced, has yielded a considerable amount of discussion, much of which has been far less balanced.

A Rant (Please excuse me for a moment.)

Have you ever noticed how, after a decision is made, after the implementation is complete, after the consequences are in, everyone—and by everyone I especially mean TV pundits—is suddenly an expert on whatever question was involved. In fact, everyone suddenly has been an expert from the beginning. And they pretty much know the same things. They know the decision was wrong; they know the outcome was a disaster; and they know that if only the decision maker had gone with the other option—whatever that option might have been (and it is unlikely to be specified)—then everything would have worked out well. There would, in fact, have been no adverse consequences whatsoever, for there can only ever be two options, and obviously one of them must have been the perfect solution to the problem at hand.

Just imagine this scenario: Let’s say that George W. Bush decided at the last minute not to invade Iraq in 2003. To this very day, Dick Cheney would be going around saying, “If only we had taken out Saddam Hussein when we had the chance, they would have greeted us with flowers and the Middle East would be a beacon of peace, stability, and prosperity today.” And pretty much all of the pundits would believe him.

Now, Back to Our Story

The key take-away from the pundit discussion regarding Obama and the Russian cyber attacks is that Obama did nothing in the face of Russian aggression. The critics rarely if ever say what he should have done;* often neglect to mention what he did do; and completely ignore the reasons for not doing more. President Trump, seeing an opportunity to fault his predecessor, has picked up this theme and promoted it, blaming any ill consequences of Russian hacking on Obama’s lack of response while continuing to deny that the hacking occurred at all.**

With regard to timing, critics complain that the administration did not make a public announcement of the Russian hacking until early October when CIA director John Brennan had attributed the hacking to Russia in early August. This, however, disregards the fact that the rest of the Intelligence Community did not conclude that Brennan was right until . . . late September. (People often assume that the government knows something from the moment that one official believes it to be true, but government—or any collective decision-making process—does not work that way, which actually prevents a lot of irresponsible decisions.)

The complaint also tacitly dismisses the potential importance of Obama’s (ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to bring the Republicans into a joint statement in defense of the America electoral system. (He wanted to avoid any appearance that he was interfering in the election himself, especially considering that Trump—and Bernie Sanders—had already denounced the process as rigged.) Critics do not give any explanation for why the announcement would have made a bigger impact in August. (If people really believed that to be the case, then “August surprise” would be a perennial political cliché instead of “October surprise.”) In the end, the announcement received virtually no attention because Trump’s Access Hollywood video and the first dump of John Podesta’s personal emails were released the same day, and the press found them more intriguing, but the administration could hardly have anticipated that.

As usual, Obama’s approach was cautious and deliberative as he focused on ways to deal with the situation without making matters worse. Worse, in this case, would have meant direct interference in the voting or vote-counting process. Thus the task at hand was to avoid the Scylla of allowing the Russians to interfere with impunity while evading the Charybdis of provoking them into escalating. You don’t want to taunt them into some action that you cannot defend against. Also to be avoided was any action or announcement that could undermine the voters’ faith in the integrity of the election and thus further the Russians’ purpose of sowing confusion and distrust. Would the Russians really have escalated? There was no way to know then, and there is no way to know now. Some people have pointed out that the voting and tabulation processes are not connected to the Internet and are therefore safe from outside interference. That is a valid point; yet the computers that controlled the centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz nuclear fuel enrichment plant were not connected to the Internet either, and the United States found that it could get the Stuxnet worm into them if it really wanted to.

So, just what did Obama do? In addition to public announcements that we knew what Moscow was up to, private warnings not to go further, bolstering of the election infrastructure against cyber threats, and postelection diplomatic and economic sanctions, Obama had an additional trick up his sleeve. This is what the Post called “a previously undisclosed covert measure that authorized planting cyber weapons in Russia’s infrastructure.” This is something the Russians were intended to find and presumably would be unable to counteract. The idea is to warn them that, if they should interfere in an election again (or engage in some other unacceptable aggressive action), the United States will already be in a position to disrupt Russia’s most vital infrastructures. If the Post has described the situation accurately (and if Trump does not order it removed, which he apparently has not done to date), this may be just the deterrent threat needed to avoid a return of Russia’s electoral interference. In a few years, we shall see.

*Some specify that Obama should have imposed December’s sanctions before the election (and simply assume that this would have elicited neither adverse reactions from the Trump campaign and Republican voters nor escalation by the Russians). In cases such as these, doing what I recommend but not doing it the moment I recommend it (or when I determine after the fact that I would have recommended it if I had recommended it at the time) is often considered the equivalent of not doing anything. The ubiquitous phrase “too little, too late” can be made to fit nearly every situation.

**Similarly, Trump claims that former FBI director James Comey lied to Congress about their conversations while simultaneously asserting that his threat to reveal nonexistent audio recordings compelled Comey to tell the truth.

 

Author

Scott Monje
Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.

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