Cotton: Obama admin shot down my proposal to fight Russian propaganda

This puts a different spin on the Democratic blame-shifting, doesn’t it? Barack Obama and other Democrats have argued that Hillary Clinton lost the election in part due to “fake news” fueled by Russian propaganda, and that Republicans didn’t want to act to stop it. Politico has its hands on document that shows Senator Tom Cotton wanted to form an intelligence task force in early 2016 to counter those efforts — and the Obama administration shot it 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.

Er … what duplicate efforts? Intelligence analyst John Schindler started warning about a lack of counter-propaganda structure over a year ago, as a nascent State Department effort got dismantled before it ever got going:

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?

Schindler updated his readers last week with a suggestion:

Democrats are clamoring for a Congressional investigation of clandestine Russian operations which influenced our election this year, and that’s a great idea. At the outset, they should demand that the White House answer the questions I asked a year ago—they are the logical place to start any inquiry into what went wrong in Washington, and why.

It’s past time to ditch wishful thinking and embrace clarity, what spies term “ground truth.” Russian intelligence interfered with American democracy this year. The extent of its impact on our election is debatable, and may not be fully understood for years. However, the blame for Russian disinformation damaging Hillary Clinton and her party—in particular, the lack of any pushback from Washington, which allowed the Kremlin’s deception machine to go into overdrive—lies not with Donald Trump or the Republicans, but with Barack Obama himself.

The Cotton letter would be another piece of evidence of this. If the White House told Congress that they already had efforts in place to counter Russian propaganda that Cotton’s proposal would have duplicated, where was it over the past year? Who led that effort, and have they been held accountable for its apparent failures? Clearly the president himself is dissatisfied with its performance and blames it for the outcome of the election (a highly disputable conclusion, of course), so why hasn’t Obama fired the people responsible for its operation? The answer appears to be that there’s no one to fire — because Obama and his team didn’t take it seriously. Until his party lost an election, that is.

Politico’s Austin Wright got a response from the White House that scoffed at the notion that Republicans had taken a tougher line than Obama on Russia and argued that they wouldn’t respond in October when Obama finally began warning about the threat. In light of this letter and of Schindler’s reporting, that’s clearly nonsense. Not only did Cotton work to build bipartisan support for the proposal, he was attempting months earlier to fill a gap left by the Obama administration. They weren’t interested in working with Cotton and Republicans at that time, nor does it appear they had enough concern about the impact of Russian propaganda to put even minimal resources in play against it.

Perhaps that’s why Senate Democrats on the Intelligence Committee are not embracing calls for a joint select task force to investigate these failures:

The bipartisan push for a special congressional committee to investigate Russian meddling in the election is running into a new hurdle: Senate Democrats.

Several members of the party, particularly those on the Intelligence Committee, are noncommittal about setting up a new select committee specifically devoted to cybersecurity that would also investigate Russian influence on the presidential election. Instead, some Democrats will wait to see whether Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) will follow through on his pledge to “expeditiously” investigate the electronic break-ins and preside over public hearings about the matter.

Democrats are also protecting their turf. Intelligence Committee members have little to gain right now by breaking with Burr, because they already have access to intelligence briefings that other members are hoping to get access to as part of a broader special panel. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are making a bipartisan push for a special select committee to tackle the Russia hacking — and cybersecurity more broadly.

That’s actually a good idea, but the Senate is getting to it very late in the game. The Obama administration has presided over a series of cyber disasters whose impact far outweighed the intrusions on private political organizations. Any joint select committee would have to look at Congressional failures to act in the past three years, as I wrote earlier this week:

This issue didn’t start in 2015, but has been an open sore throughout the Obama administration on systems that belong to the government. Edward Snowden raided the NSA three years ago and wound up in Russia. China had full access to the OPM database for more than a year before anyone knew they were in there. The DNC and the Center for American Progress are responsible for their own data security, but the failures of the executive branch in securings its own systems have been well known for years.

Perhaps that deserves its own joint select committee now to deal with the acute failures and incompetence of the Obama administration, because clearly we are at serious risk of foreign manipulation of more than just an election with these hacks. But a better question might be why the Senate and the House have not reorganized their standing committees or subcommittees to bring all of the cybersecurity issues to single points of accountability before now. Wasn’t the OPM hackmuch bigger issue in terms of exposing millions of Americans with security clearances and sensitive jobs to espionage recruitment and extortion? How about hacks at the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, State Department, and at Juniper, all of which were exposed months ago? These weren’t just attempts to influence an election, but to pervert the actual governance of the United States directly.

Why did it take hacks of non-governmental, private organizations to prompt Congress into action years after the federal cyber vulnerabilities had been exploited? Senators McCain, Chuck Schumer, et al should answer that question first before we start forming ad hoc panels to deal with a long-term ongoing threat.

Perhaps Senate Democrats are recognizing this and are starting to get cold feet over shining a bright light on the abysmal track record over the last eight years. As well they should.