Consider this a confirmation of an allegation that first emerged in March, because the co-author of the book that contained it certainly does. Michael Isikoff and David Corn published an explosive allegation that the Obama administration issued a stand-down order to efforts to counter Russian cyberwarfare in 2016. Yesterday, the head of the Obama administration’s cyber programs told the Senate Intelligence Committee that’s precisely what happened:
The Obama White House’s chief cyber official testified Wednesday that proposals he was developing to counter Russia’s attack on the U.S. presidential election were put on a “back burner” after he was ordered to “stand down” his efforts in the summer of 2016.
The comments by Michael Daniel, who served as White House “cyber security coordinator” between 2012 and January of last year, provided his first public confirmation of a much-discussed passage in the book, “Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump,” co-written by this reporter and David Corn, that detailed his thwarted efforts to respond to the Russian attack.
They came during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing into how the Obama administration dealt with Russian cyber and information warfare attacks in 2016, an issue that has become one of the more politically sensitive subjects in the panel’s ongoing investigation into Russia’s interference in the U.S. election and any links to the Trump campaign.
Three months ago, the book’s pre-release teasers identified Susan Rice as the person who delivered the order. Isikoff and Corn laid out the sequence of events in memorable fashion:
But Wallander and Daniel’s bosses at the White House were not on board. One day in late August, national security adviser Susan Rice called Daniel into her office and demanded he cease and desist from working on the cyber options he was developing. “Don’t get ahead of us,” she warned him. The White House was not prepared to endorse any of these ideas. Daniel and his team in the White House cyber response group were given strict orders: Stand down. She told Daniel to “knock it off,” he recalled.
Daniel walked back to his office. “That was one pissed-off national security adviser,” he told one of his aides.
At his morning staff meeting, Daniel matter of factly said to his team it had to stop work on options to counter the Russian attack: “We’ve been told to stand down.” Daniel Prieto, one of Daniel’s top deputies, recalled, “I was incredulous and in disbelief. It took me a moment to process. In my head I was like, Did I hear that correctly?” Then Prieto asked, “Why the hell are we standing down? Michael, can you help us understand? “Daniel informed them that the orders came from both Rice and Monaco. They were concerned that were the options to leak, it would force Obama to act. “They didn’t want to box the president in,” Prieto subsequently said.
When asked about this passage from Russian Roulette, Daniel corroborated it as “an accurate rendering of what happened.” In fact, the stand-down order came along with a mandate to start cutting the number of personnel working on the issue:
[Daniel] said his bosses at the NSC — he did not specifically mention Rice in his testimony — had concerns about “how many people were working on the options” so the “decision” from his superiors at the Obama White House was to “neck down the number of people that were involved in developing our ongoing response options.”
Daniel added that “it’s not accurate to say that all activity ceased at that point.” He and his staff “shifted our focus” to assisting state governments to protect against Russian cyberattacks against state and local election systems.
But as for his work on developing cyber deterrence measures, “those actions were put on a back burner and that was not the focus of our activity during that time period.”
Let’s not forget that this took place after Obama rejected efforts by Tom Cotton to strengthen the US posture against Russian cyberwarfare and disinformation campaigns. Cotton had raised alarms about this issue starting in 2015, but the Obama administration argued that Cotton’s proposal would duplicate existing efforts — at the time when Susan Rice was shutting those efforts down:
The White House opposed a Republican-led push earlier this year to create an executive-branch task force to battle Russia’s covert information operations, according to a document obtained by POLITICO.
Sen. Tom Cotton, a leading GOP defense hawk who has long urged President Barack Obama to take a harder line on Russia, sought to force the White House to create a panel with representatives from a number of government agencies to counter Russian efforts “to exert covert influence,” including by exposing Russian “falsehoods, agents of influence, corruption, human rights abuses, terrorism, and assassinations.”
But the administration rejected the call, saying in a letter to Congress that hasn’t been released publicly that the panel would duplicate existing efforts to battle Russian influence operations — an argument Cotton rejects.
And at the same time as that, the Obama administration was dismantling a State Department program to combat Russian disinformation campaigns in cyberspace:
Nearly a year ago, the State Department created a Counter-Disinformation Team, inside its Bureau of International Information Programs, as a small, start-up effort to resist Russian disinformation. Consisting of only a handful of staffers, it was supposed to expose the most laughable Moscow lies about America and the West that are disseminated regularly via RT and other outlets. They created a beta website and prepared to wage the struggle for truth online.
Alas, their website never went live. Recently the State Department shut down the tiny Counter-Disinformation Team and any efforts by the Obama administration to resist Putin’s propaganda can now be considered dead before birth. Intelligence Community sources tell me that it was closed out of a deep desire inside the White House “not to upset the Russians.” …
Who killed the Counter-Disinformation Team and why? What did the team produce during the time it existed? What has become of this product? How many people were on it? Does the State Department not consider countering Kremlin disinformation to be in its remit? Does the White House agree? What about the National Security Council? Is anybody in the U.S. government authorized to debunk Putin’s lies – if so, who? If not, why not?
The Obama administration had plenty of warning, and plenty of resources, to fight the Russian cyber offensive. Rather than doing so, however, they chose to stand down and leave it to a single finger-wag from Barack Obama to Vladimir Putin. With all of the dubious speculation over “collusion” between the Russians and the Trump campaign, we have heard very little about this suspicious sequence of events, in which the Obama administration seemed determined to leave the US defenseless in a cyberwar.
And in fact, the White House had an explicit entrée to fight one particular part of the cyber offensive. Former assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland not only corroborated Daniel’s testimony, she revealed that the Obama administration had good reason to intervene against Russian diplomatic personnel in the effort:
Nuland also revealed, in response to questions by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, another previously unpublicized dimension to the Russian attack. That summer, Collins said, FBI officials advised the committee that Russian diplomats were traveling around the country in areas they were not — under diplomatic protocols — permitted to visit , apparently to collect intelligence. Asked by Collins if she believed this was part of the Russian so-called active measures attack on the election, Nuland responded, “I do.”
Only after Hillary Clinton lost the election did Obama retaliate by expelling the diplomatic personnel involved. By then it was far too late, an empty gesture after a series of purposeful surrenders. Perhaps at some point, we’ll get an investigation into these decisions, which would be much more useful than having a special counsel prosecute Paul Manafort for a case the Department of Justice had in 2014, and running a couple of questionable obstruction cases that have nothing to do with Russian collusion.