The Senate Intelligence Committee this month delivered a stinging indictment of the Obama administration’s failure to deter and counter Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. A black belt in judo skilled in using his opponent’s strength against them, Russian President Vladimir Putin turned social media and online networking — the cyber infrastructure on which our democracy increasingly relies — against us.
The report echoed former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell’s admonition in 2017 that Russia’s election interference, which former National Security Adviser John Bolton called an “act of war,” represented a significant intelligence failure.
The U.S. intelligence community exists to detect and head off exactly these kinds of threats. There are three stages to the process: collection of raw intelligence, analyzing the data and making executive decisions. Intelligence success occurs when the collection of information is effective, the analysis is accurate, and executives make the right decisions to preempt threats before they are visited on our shores.
Very often formulating an intelligence assessment is akin to putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle — with some of the pieces missing and others from entirely different puzzles.
But the 2016 Russian hacking operation was no riddle wrapped inside an enigma. Calculating that a Kremlin return address would pour gasoline on already blazing partisan flames in Washington, Mr. Putin ran a operation that practically begged to be discovered.
The Russian president deliberately outsourced the cyber operation to the government’s “Internet Research Agency” troll farm as early as 2014. Russian military intelligence agents left discoverable trails as they hacked into accounts of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, which reached their peak in the spring and summer of 2016. Deliberately leaving a trail of bread crumbs back to the Kremlin, Russian operatives paid for suspect ads on Facebook with rubles.
The Obama administration could not have been surprised that Mr. Putin, who spent his formative years in the KGB and served as director of Russia’s FSB internal security police (FSB), would target the United States.
According to the Senate report, Obama administration officials eschewed any serious countermeasures against Russia’s election interference. It was only on Oct. 7, 2016 — a month before the vote — that the director of national intelligence issued an warning about interference in the upcoming election, without directly accusing Russia by name.
Even in private, top Obama national security officials such as CIA Director John Brennan delivered only mild protests to their Russian counterparts. According to the Senate report, “Russia continued further public dissemination of stolen emails, clandestine social media- based influence operations, and penetration of state voting infrastructure through Election Day 2016.”
The Obama administration was concerned that publicizing Russia’s interference would “do Russia’s dirty work for them” by amplifying doubts about the legitimacy of the U.S. vote, as well as possibly accelerate Russian interference efforts. Finally in December 2016, the Obama administration levied sanctions and expelled 35 Russian officials.
The threat was not going to get better with age like a fine wine. Early on, the Obama team should have called out Russian interference publicly and, if necessary, deployed countermeasures while hardening our election infrastructure.
Deterrence only deters when the enemy knows he faces a strong defense and the real threat of counterattack, a counterattack severe enough to induce a change in the adversary’s risk calculus. U.S. Cyber Command took a major step forward to this end, reportedly by disrupting the Russian Internet Research Agency prior to the 2018 U.S. midterm vote as part of an offensive cyber campaign.
The 2020 presidential election is in the Kremlin’s crosshairs. Following DNI official Shelby Pierson’s recent classified briefing to lawmakers, rumors are swirling about Russia aid to President Trump and Democratic front-runner Sen. Bernie Sanders. It appears Mr. Putin again is purposely advertising Kremlin interference to tarnish the candidates’ reputations and sow chaos here.
Time is growing short to confront Russia and advance a comprehensive, bipartisan strategy to fight back, something we lacked in 2016. Nothing less than our democracy is at stake.
⦁ Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.
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