Published On: Fri, Mar 9th, 2018

‘Stop’: how the Obama team has blown the response to Russian interference

Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, John Brennan, Barack Obama and Susan Rice

This is the second of two tracks adapted from Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the election of Donald Trump (Twelve Books) by Michael Isikoff, principal investigative correspondent of Yahoo News, and David Corn, head of the Washington office of Mother Jones. It will be released on March 13th.

CIA Director John Brennan was angry. On 4 August 2016 he was on the phone with Alexander Bortnikov, head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) of Russia, the intelligence agency that succeeded the KGB. The phone call was one of their regularly scheduled, the main subject once again the horrible civil war in Syria. At this point, however, Brennan had had it with the Russian spy chief. In recent years, Brennan’s requests for collaboration to defuse the Syrian crisis had gone nowhere. And after he finished talking about Syria – still without progress – Brennan raised two other issues not on the official agenda.

First of all, Brennan raised the problem of harassment by Russia against US diplomats – a particularly urgent matter to Langley after an undercover CIA officer was beaten outside the US Embassy in Moscow two months earlier. The continuing mistreatment of US diplomats, Brennan told Bortnikov, was “irresponsible, reckless, intolerable and needed to stop”. And, he underlined, it was Bortnikov’s FSB “who was the most responsible for this outrageous behavior”.

So Brennan turned to an even more delicate issue: Russia’s interference in the US elections. Brennan now knew that at least a year before the Russian hackers had started their cyber attack against the national democratic committee. We know you’re doing it, Brennan told the Russian. He pointed out that the Americans would be furious to find out that Moscow was trying to subvert the elections and that such an operation could backfire. Brennan warned Bortnikov that if Russia continued this information war, there would be a price to pay. He did not specify the consequences.

Bortnikov, as predicted by Brennan, denied that Russia is doing anything to influence the election. This was, he rattled, Washington once again scapegoat of Moscow. Brennan repeated his warning. Once again Bortnikov declared that there was no Russian interference. But, he added, he would inform Russian President Vladimir Putin of Brennan’s comments.

This was the first of numerous warnings that the Obama administration would send to Moscow. But the question of how to respond forcefully would soon divide the White House staff, comparing the main analysts of the National Security Council for Russia and the IT issues facing senior policymakers within the administration. It was a debate that would culminate that summer with a dramatic directive by the Obama national security adviser to NCI personnel who were developing aggressive proposals to attack the Russians: “Stop”.


At the end of July – not long after WikiLeaks had downloaded over 20,000 stolen DNC emails before the Democratic convention – it became clear to Brennan that the Russians were making an aggressive and far-reaching effort to interfere in the elections. He was also seeing information about contacts and interactions between Russian and American officials involved in the Trump campaign. By now, several European intelligence agencies had reported to the CIA that Russian agents were reaching people within Trump’s circle. And the Australian government had told US officials that its most important diplomat in the UK had been privately released months before by Trump’s campaign advisor George Papadopoulos that Russia had “filth” on Hillary Clinton. By July 31, the FBI had formally opened a counter-espionage inquiry into the links of Trump’s campaigns with the Russians, with secondary questions addressed to four individuals: Paul Manafort, the campaign president; Michael Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency who had led the crowd at the Republican convention in the songs of “Bloccala!”; Carter Page, a foreign policy advisor who had just given a speech in Moscow; and Papadopoulos.

Brennan spoke with FBI director James Comey and Adm. Mike Rogers, the head of the NSA, and asked them to send their experts to the CIA to set up a working group in Langley to review the intelligence and understand the scale and nature of the Russian operation. Brennan was thinking of the lessons of the September 11 attack. Al-Qaida was able to complete the operation in part because US intelligence agencies – many of which had gathered intelligence information about the conspirators before the attack – had not shared the material inside of the secret service community. Brennan wanted a process in which the NSA, FBI and CIA experts could freely share the information provided by each agency on the Russian operation – even the most secret information that tended not to be disclosed to the entire intelligence community.

Brennan realized that this was what he would later call “an exceptionally exceptional problem”. Here was a case of active counterintelligence – already initiated by the FBI – which aimed to uncover and stop the Russian secret activity in the middle of a US presidential campaign. And it included an analysis of the involvement of Americans in contact with Russia.


While Brennan banned secret service agents in a lawn crossing operation that could feed the White House information on the Russian maneuver, Obama convened a series of meetings to devise a plan to counteract whatever the Russians were doing. The meetings followed the procedure known in the federal government as the “interagency process”. The protocol foresaw that the deputy heads of the relevant government agencies meet and hammer out the options for the principals – ie the heads of the agencies – and then the principals hold a separate (and sometimes parallel) chain of meetings to discuss and perhaps discuss before to present the choices to the president.

But for this argument, the protocol was not observed. Usually when the White House invited deputies and principals to such meetings, it informed them of the topic in question and provided “readahead” memos that outlined what was on the agenda. This time, agency officials have just received instructions to present themselves at the White House at a given time. No reason provided. No reminder provided. “We were told only that a meeting was scheduled and that our principal or deputy was expected to participate,” recalled a senior administration official who attended the sessions. (At the State Department, only a small number of officials were allowed to receive the most sensitive information on the Russian hack, including Secretary of State John Kerry, Tony Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State Dan Smith, Head of the Office of secret services and Jon Finer, head of Kerry’s staff.)

For the usual inter-agency sessions, principals and deputies could bring staff. Not this time. “There were no more positive ones,” one participant recalled. When the topic of a dean or a meeting of deputies was a matter of national security, the rally often took place in the Situation Room of the White House. The internal video feed of the Sit Room – without audio – would be available to national security officials in the White House and elsewhere, and these officials could at least see that a meeting was in progress and who was present. For talks about the Russian hack, Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, ordered to disable the video feed. He did not want the other members of the national security organization to know what was happening, fearing the flight from within the bureaucracy.

Rice presided over the meetings of the principals – who gathered Brennan; Comey; Kerry; Director of National Intelligence James Clapper; Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter; The Secretary of National Security, Jeh Johnson; Treasury Secretary Jack Lew; Attorney General Loretta Lynch; and General Joseph Dunford, president of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – with only a few other White House officials present, including White House chief Denis McDonough; national security adviser Lisa Monaco and Colin Kahl, vice president of national security adviser Joe Biden. (Kahl had to insist on Rice for being allowed to participate so that Biden could be fully informed.)

Rice # 2, deputy national security advisor Avril Haines, oversaw the deputy sessions. The White House officials who were absent from the meetings were not told what was being discussed. This also included other members of the NCI staff, some of whom were liable to be excluded. Often the information material contained in these meetings was not included in the Daily’s Daily Brief, the top-secret document presented to the president every morning. Too many people have had access to the PDB. “The opsec on this” – operational security – “was as narrow as possible,” a White House official said later.


At the beginning of the inter-agency process, there is no doubt about the general picture elaborated by analysts and experts assembled by Brennan: the Russian-sponsored hackers were behind cyberattacks and the release of democratic material wiped by WikiLeaks, Guccifer 2.0 (a internet person suspected of being a Russian front) and a website called “They knew who the cuttings were,” a participant later said. “There were not many doubts”. It was not immediately clear, however, to what extent the Russian government made the effort. Did it come from one or two Russian dresses that worked alone? Or was it directed from the top and part of a larger project?

Intelligence, at this stage, was not clear on a central point: the primary objective of Moscow. Has it been sowing discord to de-legitimize the elections in the United States? Promoting a political crisis in the United States was certainly in line with Putin’s overall goal of weakening Western governments. There was another obvious reason for the Russian assault: Putin despised Hillary Clinton, blaming her for the internal protests that followed the 2011 legislative elections ruined by fraud. (At that time, as a secretary of state, Clinton had questioned the legitimacy of the election). US officials saw the Russian operation as designed to at least weaken Clinton during the election – they did not necessarily prevent her from winning. After all, the Russians were as sensitive as any political observer of conventional wisdom that would probably have defeated Trump. If Clinton, after a chaotic election, has staggered to the finish line, wounded and battered, it could very well be a damaged president and less able to challenge Putin.

And there was a third possible reason: to help Trump. Did the Russians believe they could influence national elections in the United States and influence the results? At this stage, analysts and intelligence community officials who worked on this issue considered this point not yet fully supported by the data they possessed. Given Trump’s business relations with the Russians over the years and his story of enigmatic positive remarks about Putin, there seemed to be a large cause for Putin to want Trump in the White House. Intelligence experts believed this could be part of the Moscow mix: why not shoot the moon and see if we can get Trump elected?

“All these potential reasons were not mutually exclusive,” said a senior assistant to Obama.

Obama would be on holiday in Martha’s Vineyard until August 21st, and the deputies have taken his return as an informal term for the preparation of a list of options – sanctions, diplomatic answers and cyberattacks – that could be put in front of the principals and President.


While these deliberations were under way, other intelligence problems had been reported in the White House: the hackers connected to Russia were probing the computers of the state electoral systems, in particular the voter registration databases. The first reports to the FBI came from Illinois. At the end of June, its voter database was targeted by a persistent cyber attack that lasted weeks. The attackers were using foreign IP addresses, many of which were traced to a Dutch company owned by a very tattooed 26-year-old Russian who lived in Siberia. The hackers inexorably pinged the Illinois database five times per second, 24 hours a day, and managed to access data on up to 200,000 voters. Then there was a similar report from Arizona, where the username and password of a county electoral official were stolen. The state was forced to close the voter registration system for a week. Then, in Florida, another attack.

An NSC staff regularly entered the office of Michael Daniel, the director of information security at the White House, with disturbing updates. “Michael,” he would have said, “five other states have popped up.” Or four. Or three. At one point, Daniel took a deep breath and told him “It’s beginning to look like every single state has been targeted.”

“I do not think anyone knew what to do with it,” Jeh Johnson later said. The selected states seemed random; his agency, the Department of National Security, could not see any logic. If the goal was simply to instigate the confusion on election day, Johnson thought, whoever did could simply call a bomb threat. Other administration officials had a more obscure vision, and believed that the Russians were deliberately tracing digital manipulations, perhaps with the aim of altering the results.

Michael Daniel was worried. He believed that the ability of the Russians to interfere with the counting of national votes – and to bring a US national election to a desired candidate – seemed limited, if not impossible. “We have 3,000 jurisdictions,” Daniel explained later. “You have to choose the county where the race would be tight and manipulate the results, it seemed out of their reach, the Russians were not trying to turn the votes upside down and having that level of precision was not feasible.”

But Daniel was focused on another horrible parade: if hackers could penetrate a database of state election voters, they might be able to eliminate every 10th name. Or flip two digits into the ID number of a voter, so when a voter showed up for the polls, his name would not match. The changes could be subtle, not easily distinguishable. But the potential for election day disorder was immense. The Russians should only cause problems in a small number of places – problems with registration files, vote counting or other mechanisms – and trust in the overall count could be questioned. Who knew what would happen then?

Daniel even worried that the Russians publish a video of a hacked voting machine online. The video should not be real to feed the paranoid of the world and induce a segment of the electorate to suspect – or conclude – that the results can not be trusted. He imagined that Moscow would plan to create more breaks on election day to question the final counts.

The scans, probes and penetrations of state voting systems have changed top secret conversations in progress. Administration officials now feared that the Russians were planning to infiltrate the voting systems to stop the election or influence the election day tales. And the consensus among Obama’s biggest advisors was that the potential tampering with the Russian elections was much more dangerous. The Russian hacking-and-dump campaign, generally believed, was unlikely to make a difference in the result of the presidential election. (After all, could Trump really beat Clinton?) But joking voting systems could raise questions about the integrity of the election and the results. That was, they thought, the most serious threat.

Weeks before, Trump had begun to argue that the only way he could have lost the election would have been if he were “rigged”. With a candidate and his supporters spreading this notion, it would not take many irregularities to trigger a large-scale electoral crisis Day.

Obama instructed Johnson to move immediately to strengthen the defense of state electoral systems. On August 15, Johnson, while in the basement of his parents’ home in the northern part of New York, held a teleconference with state secretaries and other senior election officials from every state. Without mentioning the Russian computer intrusion into state systems, he said that it was necessary to strengthen the security of the electoral infrastructure and offer DHS assistance. It raised the possibility of designating electoral systems as “critical infrastructures” – just like dams and the electricity grid – which means that a cyber attack could trigger a federal response.

To Johnson’s surprise, this move met resistance. Many of the state officials – especially the Red States – wanted little, if anything, to do with DHS. Leading the job was Brian Kemp, Georgia’s state secretary, an ambitious, staunchly conservative republican who feared the hidden hand of the Obama White House. “We do not need the federal government to take control of our votes,” he told Johnson.

Johnson tried to explain that DHS information security experts could help state systems look for vulnerabilities and protect against penetration. He encouraged them to take basic cybersecurity measures, for example by ensuring that voting machines were not connected to the Internet at the time of voting. And he kept explaining that any federal aid would be voluntary for the states. “He must have used the word voluntary 15 times,” recalled a National Security official who was present at the call. “But there was a lot of skepticism that revolved around saying, ‘We do not want Big Brother to enter and run our electoral process'”.

After the call, Johnson and his assistants realized that encouraging local officials to accept their help would be difficult. They renounced the idea of ​​declaring these system critical infrastructures and instead concluded that they should continue to urge state and local officials to accept their IT security assistance.

Johnson’s interaction with local and state officials was a warning to the White House. If the administration officials were to recruit these electoral officials to obstruct the Russian interference in the vote, they would need the GOP leaders in Congress to be part of the effort and, in a sense, to guarantee the federal government. Yet they had no idea how hard it would be.


At the first meeting of the principals, Brennan had serious news for his colleagues: the most recent intelligence services have indicated that Putin had ordered or supervised the Russian cybernetic operations that aimed at the elections in the United States. And the intelligence community – sometimes called “IC” by the inhabitants of that world – was certain that the Russian operation meant more than intelligence services that gathered information. Now he considered Russian action as an active measure on a large scale.

This intelligence was so sensitive that it had not been included in the Daily’s Daily Brief. Brennan had personally told Obama this, but he did not want the information to circulate through the national security system.

The other presidents were surprised to hear that Putin had a direct hand in the operation and that he would be so bold. It was one thing for Russian intelligence to see what he could get away with; it was rather another for these attacks to be part of a concerted effort from the top of the Kremlin hierarchy.

But a secret source in the Kremlin, which two years earlier had regularly provided information to an American official in the US embassy, ​​had warned that a massive operation against Western democracies had been planned by the Russian government. The development of the Gerasimov Doctrine – a non-military combat strategy named after a senior Russian general who had described it in a dark military magazine in 2013 – was another indication that a large-scale information war against the United States was a possibility. And in May there was an intelligence report that observed that a Russian military intelligence officer had boasted about a recovery operation that would be Putin’s revenge on Clinton. But these few clues had not led to a high level government consensus that an important Putin-led attack was coming.


At this point, Obama’s top national security officials were unsure how to respond. As they would later explain, every step they could take – calling the Russians, imposing sanctions, raising alarms on the penetration of state systems – could draw more attention to the issue and perhaps even help to cause the disorder the Kremlin sought. A reaction from the high-profile US government, worried about them, could amplify the psychological effects of the Russian attack and help Moscow reach its end. “There was concern that if we had done too much to turn this into a confrontation between Obama and Putin, this would have helped the Russians achieve their goals,” noted a participant in the principals. “It would create chaos, help Trump and hurt Clinton, we had to figure out how to do it in a way not to create an own goal.We had a strong sense of Hippocrates’ oath: do no harm”.

A parallel concern for them was how the Obama administration could respond to the Russian attack without appearing too much partisan. Obama was actively campaigning for Clinton. Can a harsh and vocal reaction be seen as an attempt by the White House to assist Clinton and attack him on Trump? They feared that if a White House effort to counter Russia’s intrusion had presented itself as a political maneuver, it could jeopardize the Internal Security Department’s ability to work with state and local officials to make sure the voting system was valid. (Was Obama also worried about being perceived as prejudicial or conniving? “Perhaps there was some overcompensation,” said a senior Obama assistant later.

As Obama and his senior policymakers have seen, they have been stuck with various dilemmas. Inform the public of the Russian attack without triggering widespread discomfort on the electoral system. Be proactive without meeting partisans and supporting Trump’s claim that the election was a sham. Prevent Putin from further cyberattacking without causing him to do more. “This was one of the most complex and demanding issues I have faced in the government,” said Avril Haines, the official no. 2 of the NSC, which oversaw the meetings of the deputies.

The principals asked the Treasury Department to draw up a list of far-reaching economic sanctions. State Department officials have begun to elaborate diplomatic sanctions. And the White House pushed the IC to develop more intelligence on the Russian operation, so Obama and his aides could consider whether to publicly call Moscow.


At this point, a group of NSC officials engaged in an energetic response to the Moscow intervention began inventing creative options for cyberattacks that would broaden the information war that Putin had begun.

Michael Daniel and Celeste Wallander, the main Russian analyst of the National Security Council, were convinced that the United States had to react strongly against the Russians and make it clear that Moscow had crossed a red line. Words alone would not do the trick; there had to be consequences. “I wanted to send a signal that we would not tolerate interruptions in our electoral process,” recalled Daniel. His basic argument: “The Russians push harder than they can until we begin to reject”.

Daniel and Wallander began drafting options for more aggressive responses, beyond anything else the Obama administration or the US government has ever contemplated in response to a cyberattack. A proposal was to unleash the NSA to trigger a series of far-reaching cyber attacks: dismantle the Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks sites that had leaked emails and stolen reminders to democratic targets, to bombard Russian news sites with a wave of traffic automated in a denial-of-service attack that would block news sites and launch an attack on the same Russian intelligence agencies, trying to break their command and control nodes.

Knowing that Putin was notoriously protective of any information about his family, Wallander suggested that he target Putin himself. He proposed leaking fragments of confidential information to reveal the secret accounts of the Latvian bank detained for Putin’s daughters – a direct blow to the Russian president who would be sure to infuriate him. Wallander also exchanged ideas with Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European affairs and a difficult-to-understand colleague. They drafted proposals to unload the dirt on Russian websites about Putin’s money, on the girlfriends of major Russian officials, on corruption in Putin’s party in United Russia – essentially to give Putin a taste of his own medicine. “We wanted to increase costs in a way that Putin recognized,” Nuland recalled.

An idea proposed by Daniel was unusual: the United States and NATO were supposed to publicly announce a gigantic “cyber exercise” against a mythical Eurasian country, showing that Western nations had the power to shut down Russia’s entire civil infrastructure and paralyze its economy.

But the leaders Wallander and Daniel at the White House were not on board. One day at the end of August, Susan Rice, a national security advisor, called Daniel into his office and asked for it to cease and desist from working on the IT options it was developing. “Do not go on with us,” he warned. The White House was not ready to support any of these ideas. Daniel and his team in the White House cyber response group received strict orders: Stand down. He told Daniel to “eliminate him”, he recalled.

Daniel returned to his office. “That was a careless adviser for national security,” he told one of his assistants.

During his morning staff meeting, Daniel told his team that he had to stop working on options to counter the Russian attack: “We were told to give up”. Daniel Prieto, one of Daniel’s best deputies, recalled, “I was incredulous and incredulous.It took me a moment to elaborate.In my head I was like, I heard?” Then Prieto asked, “Why the hell are we standing? “Michael, can you help us understand?” Daniel informed them that orders came from both Rice and Monaco. They were worried that they were losing options, would force Obama to act. “They did not want to box the president,” Prieto later said.

It was a critical moment that, as he saw Prieto, gutted the possibility of an immediate and vigorous response to the Russian hack – and he was deeply disappointed by the NSC assistants who had developed the options. They were convinced that the president and his best assistants had not taken the stakes. “There was a disconnection between the urgency felt at the personal level” and the opinions of the president and his assistants, Prieto later said. When senior officials said the problem could be revisited after election day, Daniel and his staff strongly disagreed. “No – the longer you wait, your effectiveness diminishes.If you are in a street fight, you have to fight back,” said Prieto.


Obama and his best assistants saw the challenge at their fingertips differently than the NSC staff members. “The goal of the first order directed by President Obama”, said McDonough, “was to protect the integrity of the elections”. The confrontation with Putin was necessary, Obama believed, but not if he risked to blow up the election. He wanted to make sure that whatever action was taken would not lead to a political crisis at home – and with Trump the possibility was great. The nation had had more than 200 years of peaceful elections and transitions of power. Obama did not want it to end on his watch.

At this point, the principals were in the heart of the matter, discussing the specifics of how to respond in the Sit Room. They were not overly concerned with the Moscow influence campaign to shape voters’ attitudes. The key question was precisely how to counter Russian interference that could undermine the mechanisms of the elections. Strong penalties? Other punishments?

The principals discussed cybernetic responses. The prospect of hitting the cyber caused trepidation within the meetings of deputies and principals. The United States was telling Russia that this type of interference was unacceptable. If Washington had committed itself to the same kind of secret combat, some of the principals believed that Washington’s request would mean nothing and that there would be an escalation in the cyber war. There were fears that the United States would have more to lose all over the world.

“If we had taken a bad turn on cyber with the Russians, it would not have been to our advantage,” a participant noted later. “They could do more to damage us in a cyberwar or have a greater impact.” In one of the meetings, Clapper said he was worried that Russia could respond with cyber-attacks against the critical American infrastructure – and probably shut down the electricity grid.

The State Department had elaborated its traditional punishments: getting the Russian diplomats – and the spies – to leave the United States and close the Russian facilities on American soil. And the Treasury had drawn up a series of economic sanctions that included massive assaults on Putin’s economy, how to target Russia’s military industries and cut Russia off the global financial system. One proposal required to impose the same type of sanctions that had been imposed on Iran: any entity that had commercial relations with Russian banks would not be allowed to maintain business relationships with US financial institutions. But the intelligence community warned that if the United States responded with a massive response of any kind, Putin would see it as an attempt to change the regime. “This could lead to a nuclear escalation,” said an authoritative assistant to Obama in a metaphorical sense.

After two weeks of discussions, the White House has put these options on hold. Instead, Obama and his assistants have come up with a different plan. First of all, DHS would continue to try to work with state voting systems. In order for this to succeed, the administration needed the buy-in from congressional Republicans. So Obama has contacted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan to attempt to deliver a bipartisan and public message that the Russian threat to the elections was serious and that local officials should work with the feds to protect electoral infrastructures.

Obama and the leaders have also decided that the US government should have issued a public statement invoking Russia for having already secretly messed up the 2016 campaign. But this also seemed like a task full of potential problems. Obama and his best collaborators believed that if the president himself had issued such a message, Trump and the Republicans would accuse him of exploiting intelligence – or inventing intelligence – to help Clinton. The statement should come from the intelligence community, which was then charged with starting to make a statement. Meanwhile, Obama would not have continued to say anything about the most serious information war attack ever launched against the United States.

Above all, Obama and his aides had to understand how to ensure that the Russians immediately cease their interference. They arrived with an answer that would have frustrated the NSC hawks, who believed that Obama and his senior advisors had bonded to each other and sought reasons not to act. The president will warn Putin privately and will make an overwhelming reprisal vote for any further intervention in the elections. This, they thought, could more probably dissuade Putin than strike at this moment. That is, they believed that the threat of action would be more effective than the actual action.

A G-20 meeting was scheduled for the first week of September in China. Both Obama and Putin would both be present. Obama, according to this plan, would have confronted Putin and issued a powerful threat that allegedly convinced Russia to back down. Obama would do so without specifying for Putin the precise damage he would have inflicted on Russia. “An unspecified threat would be much more powerful than Putin knew what we would do,” one of the presidents said. “Let his imagination run in. It would be much more effective, we thought, than to freeze the assets of this or that person.” But the essence of the message would be that if Putin did not stop, the United States would impose sanctions on crating the Russian economy.

Obama and his assistants were confident that the intelligence community could follow any new Russian attempt to penetrate electoral infrastructure. If the IC detects new attempts, then Obama could quickly slap Russia with sanctions or other pay. But the presidents agreed that to make this plan work, the president had to be ready to pull the trigger.


Obama threatened – but he never pulled the trigger. At the beginning of September, during the G-20 summit in Hangzhou, China, the president privately faced Putin in what a senior White House official described as “blunt” and “outspoken”. The president informed his assistants that he had delivered the message that he and his advisors had elaborated: we know what you are doing. If you do not cut it, we will impose heavy and unprecedented penalties. A senior US government official briefed on the meeting was informed that the president told Putin, in effect: “You fucked with us for the elections and we will bring down your economy”.

But Putin simply denied everything to Obama – and, as he had done before, he blamed the United States for interfering with Russian politics. And if Obama was hard in private, he publicly interpreted the statesman. At the request for a post-summit press conference on the incision of the election by Russia, the president spoke in general – and insisted that the United States did not want a buzz on the issue. “We had problems with IT intrusion from the past, from other past counties,” he said. “Our goal is not to suddenly, in the cyber arena, duplicate an escalation of the cycle we have seen when other arms races arrive in the past, but rather start to introduce some rules so that everyone acts as responsible”.

White House officials believed for a while that Obama’s warning had had some impact: they did not see any further evidence of the intrusion of Russian cybercriminals into state electoral systems. But, as they later recognized, they largely lost Russia’s military information campaign aimed at influencing the elections: inflammatory Facebook ads and Twitter bots created by an army of Russian trolls working for the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg.

On October 7, the Obama administration finally became public, issuing a statement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security that urged the Russians to make their efforts to “interfere with the US election process” , stating that “only senior Russian officials could have authorized these activities.” But for some in the Clinton campaign and within the White House itself, it was too little, too late. Wallander, the NSC Russia specialist who had pushed for a more aggressive response, thought that the October 7 declaration was largely irrelevant. “Russians do not care what we say,” he later noted. “They worry about what we do.” (The same day that the statement came out, WikiLeaks began its post-month of tens of thousands of emails that the Russian hackers stole from John Podesta, the CEO of the Clinton campaign).

In the end, some Obama officials thought they had misused the best they could, and had managed to prevent a Russian break on election day. Others would sadly conclude that they might have blown him up and not done enough. Almost two months after the election, Obama imposed sanctions on Moscow for his interference in the elections, closing two Russian structures in the United States suspected of being used for intelligence operations and starting 35 Russian diplomats and spies. The impact of these moves was questionable. Rice would come to believe it was reasonable to think that the administration would have to go further. While a senior official complained, “Maybe we should have hit them more.”

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