President Obama could be too detached when a real threat to America’s security and credibility was staring him in the face. His approach at times seemed to amount to “let’s not make things worse.”
One of the clearest examples is his reaction when CIA director John Brennan’s raw “intelligence bombshell” was delivered to the White House in early August 2016, as reported by The Washington Post.
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The super-sensitive report documented what has been termed the political “crime of the century,” Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential campaign – including the Russian leader’s specific instructions on the Russian objective. That was: damage, if not defeat, the Democratic nominee, and help elect her Republican opponent.
What did Obama do with this warning, three months before election day? He instructed his aides to check on vulnerabilities in the election system, and to get the other intelligence agencies to agree on the severity of the threat from Russian interference.
In the meantime, Obama personally admonished Putin to cut it out. (Brennan had previously warned his counterpart in Moscow.) But election day arrived without any penalty levied against Moscow – or any sustained attempt to warn the American electorate.
For five months, the President and his advisers debated options for deterring or punishing Russia. Only at the end of the year, on Dec. 29, was the public told in a White House statement that Putin had been engaged in “significant malicious cyber-enabled activities” designed to undermine the integrity of the November election.
Looking back, a former senior administration official reflected: “It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend. ... I feel like we sort of choked.”
Reportedly, the President and his advisers had been concerned that any pre-election response to Moscow might provoke an escalation from the Kremlin. They also worried that any action taken would be perceived as political interference in the presidential campaign, that is, putting their fingers on the scale. But, given the gravity of the issue, why not disclose what they knew?
Hear Obama’s unconvincing rationalization at a December press conference: “I wanted to make sure that everybody understood we were playing this thing straight [but] what we were trying to do is let people know that this had taken place. ... We did not do the work of the (Russian) leakers for them by raising more and more questions about the integrity of the election right before the election was taking place...”
As analyzed in the Post report, President Obama’s determination to avoid politicizing the discovery of major Russian interference arguably had an opposite effect: He allowed politics to shape the administration’s response to what some believed should have been treated purely as a national security threat.
The Russian interference happened on Obama’s watch, no doubt about it. The exposure and punishment did not fit the crime.
What will matter now is if the intelligence community goes forward with the covert intelligence action approved by President Obama before he left office, authorizing the planting of cyber weapons in Russia’s infrastructure – described as “the digital equivalent of bombs” – should this country find itself confronted with such a threat from Moscow in the 2018 and 2020 elections.
One can only hope that President Trump gets over his denials on Russia.
Jackson, a Davidson resident, was chief legislative assistant to the Senate Democratic Whip from 1974-77.