In the Democrats’ rush to blame Republicans for failing to confront Russia over interference in the 2016 election they have largely overlooked the failure of President Obama to respond to the hacks. Today, CNN reports that the Obama administration was aware of what was happening for months but kept coming up with reasons not to react:
Some officials in the US intelligence agencies warned that the US risked starting a wider cyber-conflict with Russia in which the US had a lot more to lose because more of the US infrastructure and economy is dependent on the Internet, and much of it is vulnerable to attack.
Some State Department officials also worried about the risk to ongoing efforts to make a deal with Russia over Syria. The on-again, off-again talks continued during the summer as the US wrestled with what to do about the hacks.
So various elements within the Obama administration had concerns about how Russia might respond if the U.S. were to launch some sort of cyber retaliation. Those responses could include attacks on our economy or an end to John Kerry’s diplomacy with Russia over Syria.
The White House also had its own concerns about how such a move would play in domestic politics. Recall that in the waning weeks of the election, Trump was talking about the “rigged” system. The media was in a panic over this. There were repeated demands that Trump agree to accept the results of the election in advance (by which they meant to graciously concede defeat). Trump’s refusal was judged a threat to democracy itself. Looking at all of this, the White House decided it would be taking a big risk if it were to wade into the chaos. Specifically, if a response to Russia was seen as aiding Clinton, it might give Trump an excuse to double-down and refuse to accept the results of the election. But since the White House was certain Hillary was going to win, there was no harm in waiting:
White House officials worried that publicly outing Russia would appear to be an effort to help Clinton, and the deliberations coincided with Trump’s complaints about a rigged election. Administration officials were sure Trump would lose in November and they were worried about giving him any reason to question the election results.
What the administration actually did, which seems to be mostly forgotten, is dither. The FBI was tasked with trying to put together a lawsuit against Russia. Obviously that doesn’t look like such a brilliant decision in retrospect. Perhaps if the White House had been willing to push the issue more forcefully it might have acted as a backstop to claims the Clinton campaign was already making about Russian interference in the election. Perhaps the media would have tuned out some of the stories that arose from the leaked emails and instead focused on the hacking itself, which again is what the Clinton camp wanted the media to do.
It’s worth noting that one of the other reasons raised for not responding to Russia turned out to be a dead end. By late September Secretary Kerry’s attempt at diplomacy with Russia were in shambles. Kerry actually became angry (justifiably so) and mocked the Russians at the U.N. over their behavior in Syria. The remaining concern about opening the U.S. to a widespread cyber-attack on our economy seems like a legitimate concern, but the bottom line is that it was the Obama White House that decided to hold off on a reaction to Russia’s meddling until Hillary was elected.