On Friday, The Washington Post published a detailed account of the challenge the Obama administration faced in the run up to the 2016 presidential election as the U.S. intelligence community repeatedly raised concerns of Russian hacking. The story is striking in the regret expressed by former Obama officials and the lack of good options the Administration had at its disposal. Moreover, it raises significant questions about how the United States addresses the Kremlin in the future. To better understand what comes next, The Cipher Brief’s Callie Wang spoke with Former Acting Director of the CIA, Michael Morell about his reaction to the story, its implications for the U.S. intelligence community, and how the U.S. can protect its democracy from future attacks.
The Cipher Brief: The Washington Post story quotes Obama officials describing the administration’s response as “choking” and “mishandled” – do you agree?
Michael Morell: Let me just start by saying that I think the Post article is an important reminder that there is another aspect of the Russia story that has not received enough attention. The media has been heavily focused, for understandable reasons, on the question of whether or not anyone in the Trump camp conspired with the Russians on the latter’s attempt to sway the election in Trump’s favor (and if the President might have obstructed justice to bring that investigation to an end).
But another issue, highlighted by the Post story, is how President Obama and his Administration handled the Russian interference. That is a fair question for the media to investigate, and quite frankly it is something that Obama Administration officials – without saying anything classified – need to speak about publicly and candidly.
Now, to answer your question, I would say that, as I read the Post article, three questions came to my mind about how the former Administration handled the issue. And, as I think about those questions, I conclude that the Obama Administration’s record is mixed.
The first question is what did the Administration do to stop, or at least minimize, what the Russians were trying to accomplish? Given the nature of what the Russians were doing – operating in cyber space – Obama’s national security team did not have great options to stop the Russians. So, the expectations of what was possible in that regard need to be managed. But, it does sound to me like the Administration, by working with individual states to secure their voting systems from attack and by giving several direct warnings to the Russians, almost certainly kept the Russians from taking steps that would have made the situation even worse. Obama deserves credit for that.
The second question is how to think about the Administration’s decision not to be more forthcoming with the American people about what the Russians were doing. The Administration – in the form of a public statement from then DNI Jim Clapper and then Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson – told the country that the Russians were trying to interfere in the election and blamed the Russians directly for the hacks of Democratic emails, the sharing of embarrassing information with the likes of Wikileaks, and the attempts to penetrate state voting systems. The Administration did not tell the American people of what the Russian goal was in doing all of this – that is, damaging Secretary Clinton and electing Donald Trump. Nor did they share what was possibly the most damaging of what the Russians were doing: using social media to both create and to amplify fake news, all damaging to the Secretary.
I think it is tough to critique President Obama here because the decision on how much to share publicly must have been an extraordinarily difficult one. There was no good decision here – only two bad ones. I do think that, if I had been advising the President, I would have been on the side of being more open with the public rather than less. The public had a right to know how the Russians were trying to influence them, for what purpose, and how. I do think that Obama, by trying to stay off the political playing field himself, ended up ceding it to Putin.
It is on the third question where I think the Administration seriously erred – how to deter Putin from doing this again. The steps they took after the election to “punish” the Russians simply did not fit the crime. The actions – limited sanctions, the closing of two Russian diplomatic facilities suspected of being used for espionage, and the expulsion of Russian intelligence officers – will in no way deter Putin. I’m sure Putin saw the actions as a slap on the wrist.
The other problem with the package of U.S. actions was that the Administration said that they were pushback for two issues – not only Russian meddling in our election but also for Russian harassment of U.S. diplomats in Moscow. By merging the two issues we muddied the message – what action was for what crime? And the two crimes were of completely different magnitudes – one was strategic and one tactical, one huge and one much less so. Clarity of message is one of the keys to a successful foreign policy, and, by merging the two issues, the Administration’s message on the election interference became vague.
TCB: The U.S. reportedly considered aggressive counteraction prior to the election – cyber attacks on Russian infrastructure, releasing embarrassing information on Putin, or sanctions that could “crater” the Russian economy – that were not pursued for fear of provoking Putin. Can you help our readers understand how those options are weighed, especially given the fear of appearing to have political motives – did the Administration have a better option?
Morell: I think the Administration’s decision not to hit back until after the election was the right one – for fear of leading Putin to take even more aggressive action related to the election. I think it was also smart for the United States not to react with our own cyber actions for three reasons: (1) Hitting back with cyber would have undercut our fundamental argument that Russia’s use of cyber was unacceptable; (2) the United States is the most vulnerable country in the world to cyber attacks, and so we need to be extraordinarily careful not to set a precedent that it is okay to do so; and (3) the use of cyber would not, in my view, have raised the costs to Putin enough to deter him, as the U.S. cyber actions would have been largely unseen.
TCB: In January of 2017, you told The Cipher Brief – and you just reiterated it – that the sanctions package on Russia was “confusing and weak.” Thus far, it seems they have had very limited impact in Russia. The U.S. Senate just passed a new bill sanctioning Russia that is meeting resistance from the House of Representatives and the White House – what needs to be incorporated into a new sanctions package that makes them more than just symbolic?
Morell: There is one thing that Putin fears more than anything else – an Arab Spring style movement in the streets of Moscow; his own people coming into the streets and saying “we don’t like the direction our country is going, we want a greater say in how we are governed, and we want you to go away.” He really fears that. It is the key reason he reacted so strongly to such an uprising in the streets of Kiev; he did not want a successful people’s movement in Ukraine to become a precedent for Russia.
So, what this all means is that to get Putin’s attention you have to take steps that threaten to undermine the Russian economy, steps that would get him to fear that his people might say “enough.” That means Iranian-style sanctions – the United States saying to all international financial institutions, for example, “if you want to do business with the United States, you can’t do business with Russia.” That would deter Putin.
TCB: The breadth of different Russian attack methods reported in the Post was striking: fake news proliferation, sending Russian technicians into the country, hacking political entities in the U.S. What does this tell us about the depth and determination of the Russian effort? Given that, what should we expect in the future, both before and during the 2018 elections?
Morell: As I said, if we do not deter him, Putin will be back in 2018 and 2020. His fundamental goal is for Russia to be on par with the United States in the world, for Russia to be seen as an equal of the United States. Putin can’t get there by building up his own country because he has so badly mismanaged his economy and society. So, he is pursuing his goal the only other way he can – by trying to weaken the United States everywhere he can in the world. And, one of his efforts in that regard is to undermine our democracy. That is a huge deal that not everyone has fully accepted.
TCB: One administration official told the Post that the White House mistakenly viewed this only in the context of a cyber attack – and not as a much larger assault on our political systems that simply used cyber as a tool. Do you think this provides a broader lesson learned – should we reframe the way we view cyber attacks more generally?
Morell: I think you make an exceptionally important point. The threat from cyber is broader than we have traditionally defined it. And, a not unreasonable question to ask is: was this an intelligence failure? Did the U.S. intelligence community (IC) anticipate that cyber could be used in the way the Russians used it? How long did it take us to see? Why wasn’t there advance warning? Was this a failure of imagination – that we could simply not have imagined that someone would use the internet and social media in this way?
TCB: Certain members of Congress reportedly didn’t believe the intelligence community’s initial reports on Russian hacking. In combination with President Trump’s later comments about the IC’s findings, it seems like Moscow succeeded in not only undermining confidence in our electoral systems, but also our intelligence community. If so, what are the consequences of that?
Morell: I find it deeply concerning that so many officials still question the judgment of the IC. It is clear to me that they are doing so for political reasons. It is a politically inconvenient judgment for some. And what this means is that these folks are allowing politics to interfere with how they think about what the IC is telling them. That is very dangerous for us as a nation, and it is something that must make Putin very happy.
TCB: As a follow-up to the above, these are attacks on our democracy and our collective political consciousness – elements that seem very difficult to defend. It seems that this is broader than the realm of foreign policy – do you agree?
Morell: I do agree. From the very beginning of the public discourse on this, a number of serious-minded Senators and Congressman from both parties – Senator McCain comes to mind – have been calling for a National Commission to look at just what the Russians did and to make recommendations for how we can protect our democracy from such attacks going forward. It seems to me that this idea still has significant merit.