Did the US have an opportunity to strike back at Russian meddling during the 2016 campaign and potentially cripple their efforts? According to Russian Roulette, a new book from Michael Isikoff and David Corn due out on Tuesday, the National Security Agency had readied a number of responses and counterattacks and had only needed the order to proceed. When the order came, however, it turned out to be “stand down”:
This was the first of several warnings that the Obama administration would send to Moscow. But the question of how forcefully to respond would soon divide the White House staff, pitting the National Security Council’s top analysts for Russia and cyber issues against senior policymakers within the administration. It was a debate that would culminate that summer with a dramatic directive from Obama’s national security adviser to the NSC staffers developing aggressive proposals to strike back against the Russians: “Stand down.”
Before we get to the wisdom of that decision, what exactly did the NSA and other agencies have in mind for a response, and would it have been effective? One set of options was to have the NSA go after the cut-outs — DCLeaks, Guccifer 2.0, and others — in order to shut down the propaganda efforts:
Daniel and Wallander began drafting options for more aggressive responses beyond anything the Obama administration or the U.S. government had ever before contemplated in response to a cyberattack. One proposal was to unleash the NSA to mount a series of far-reaching cyberattacks: to dismantle the Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks websites that had been leaking the emails and memos stolen from Democratic targets, to bombard Russian news sites with a wave of automated traffic in a denial-of-service attack that would shut the news sites down, and to launch an attack on the Russian intelligence agencies themselves, seeking to disrupt their command and control nodes.
Other options were more direct. The team proposed a full-frontal attack on the Russian economy and Vladimir Putin’s pocketbook in particular. That prompted some concern that Putin’s response might not be limited to cyberspace and could risk getting into an actual war. The Obama administration also worried — and not without reason — that making this into a public fight might give the Russians exactly what they wanted: a reason for Americans to lose faith in the election system. NSA came up with a middle option of demonstrating our capabilities without doing any damage:
One idea Daniel proposed was unusual: The United States and NATO should publicly announce a giant “cyber exercise” against a mythical Eurasian country, demonstrating that Western nations had it within their power to shut down Russia’s entire civil infrastructure and cripple its economy.
That still didn’t pass muster. Instead, intelligence operatives were told to stop working on any response:
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.
In the end, Obama tried telling Putin directly to stop interfering in the election, which went exactly how one would assume. Putin denied having anything to do with cyberattacks, and at first the Obama administration thought the warning had an impact, as activity against election systems appeared to recede. However, the same officials now acknowledge that they entirely missed the propaganda efforts that they now believe impacted the election.
That’s tough to credit too, though. Tom Cotton had warned them in 2015 about the issue and proposed funding a counter-propaganda effort for the 2016 election cycle. Obama shot that down months before the sequence of events described by Isikoff and Corn:
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.
John Schindler wrote in November 2015 that the Obama administration also starved a similar program in the State Department:
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?
This might come up in the Isikoff/Corn book elsewhere, but it seems apropos to cite it with this particular claim. It wasn’t just in the late summer of 2016 that Obama issued stand-down orders; he’d been issuing them for almost two years at that point when it came to combating Russian disinformation and propaganda campaigns. Those decisions left the US woefully unprepared for the Russian operations in 2016.
While Isikoff and Corn raise valid questions about the potential consequences of the options Obama and his team had in September 2016, that explanation requires the context of why Obama faced those questions that late in the cycle. It’s certainly true that making a public stink about Putin’s aggression might play right into his hands that late in the cycle, and that attacks on his own finances could have created a flashpoint for a hot US-Russian war in Syria, too. But had Obama not been “standing down” on Russia for practically the entirety of his presidency and openly mocking Republicans like Mitt Romney who correctly pointed out the threat they represented, he might not have been left with a bad hand in September 2016.
The stand-down order was the norm, in other words, not the surprise.