“The Kremlin Didn’t Elect Trump – Obama Did”: Outline of Implications of Russian Information Operations in the 2016 Elections

I offer this post to explain and expand upon an argument I have been making on Twitter, and to collect some reference material on a subject, or a set of extraordinary claims, whose potential for lasting significance I find difficult to estimate. Please feel free, as always, to provide further links or your own thoughts in the comments (or by email – let me know if you prefer not to be identified in future discussion).

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The argument is widely being made over Thanksgiving Weekend 2016 that Russian-sponsored interference in the U.S. electoral process, by diverse means, unexpectedly tipped a close decision to Republican candidate Donald J Trump.

A sampling from my Twitter feed:

Many of the same people making this argument view the election result as calamitous, and not just for the national interest, but for the American constitutional system itself.

It would necessarily follow that, in failing to prevent this multi-level calamity by whatever means necessary, President Barack Obama proved grossly derelict in carrying out the primary and most essential duty of his office. At minimum, the implication would be that Russian-sponsored interference in the U.S. electoral process was serious and important, but that the President’s response to it has been (or was) completely inadequate, and, worst of all and most tellingly, the Russian success in installing or helping to install its preferred leader as President-elect makes repairing the current President’s error unlikely at least in the short to medium term, if in fact the damage proves reparable at all.

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The question here is not whether the President or anyone else is responsible for being “up” on the latest in cyber-security, nor whether interference exceeded what is generally known and widely accepted – and even extended to the compromising of key people around Donald Trump or of Trump himself, or to “hacking” of critical vote counts – but whether or not, if claims of the sort sampled above are reasonable ones, Obama and his Administration responded in a manner commensurate to the danger made evident above all in the actual election results, but already present in a general erosion of confidence in American self-government.

To summarize some further discussion and points of clarification involving Michael Drew, Elizabeth Picciuto, Dan Scotto, Vikram Bath, and Neil Scott, I am not arguing that the initial claims – that Russian interference of whatever types really did tip the election – are valid. Nor do I claim to know, or to be able to demonstrate, that the Russians really did make a significant attempt, whether or not successful, to distort the American electoral process and undermine American democratic self-governance. My observations initially concern the implications of an argument, and my conclusions are based upon what minimally can be drawn from the state of the national discussion on its own terms.

We should note, however, that at least the second claim has been reinforced from the Administration itself in recent statements from NSA Director Michael Rogers, as reported by Business Insider ((See also “Obama Considers ‘Proportional’ Response to Russian Hacking in U.S. Election,” New York Times, 11 October 2016, and “Obama administration accuses Russian government of election-year hacking,” Politico, 8 October 2016)):

Adm. Michael Rogers, who leads both the NSA and US Cyber Command, made [his] comments during a conference presented by The Wall Street Journal in response to a question about WikiLeaks’ release of nearly 20,000 internal emails from the Democratic National Committee.

“There shouldn’t be any doubt in anybody’s mind,” Rogers said. “This was not something that was done casually. This was not something that was done by chance. This was not a target that was selected purely arbitrarily. This was a conscious effort by a nation-state to attempt to achieve a specific effect.”

Rogers did not specify the nation-state or the specific effect, though US intelligence officials say they suspect Russia provided the emails to WikiLeaks after hackers stole them from DNC servers and the personal email account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta.

The success of a foreign government in distorting the American electoral process and undermining confidence in it would be independently a matter of grave concern, justifying resistance to the utmost, on the part of all citizens, but especially on the part of those sworn to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States of America” or to “protect and defend [it] against all enemies foreign and domestic.”

As noted, the key further premise in this typically unintended indictment of President Obama – but not just of him – is one held by most if not all of the people making claims like those initially observed: that the election of Donald J Trump is something of a calamity either already or in what it portends. Also relevant to the assessment of President Obama’s conduct is the fact that he himself engaged in, it has been said, unprecedented campaigning against President-elect Trump, and joined many others, including of course Trump’s opponent, in declaring Trump “unfit” for the office to which he has now been elected. In short, Obama knew that a foreign power was aiding and abetting a desperately unfit individual to take over the presidency and the latter’s poltical movement to take over the government, and confined himself to giving speeches, while, among other things, leaving the security apparatus he commanded to do little or nothing but collect additional unused intelligence.

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Some of the discussants mentioned above reasonably asked whether stronger measures than any generally known to have been taken might have been thought more likely to do more harm then good, or could have been undertaken at all in a manner in keeping with the character of a free society. Yet, again, accepting the major and minor premises of the argument, though we might excuse the President and others personally, doing so would not change a final determination of fundamental damage to the American nation, and therefore of a danger that should have been taken seriously, and that would have justified or indeed required extraordinary countermeasures, including actions beyond the realm of “information operations.”

In any event, the Obama Administration appears to have been far from even utilizing classic “proportional” measures. In a November 16 article in the New York Times, veteran reporter David Sanger summarizes the overall assessment of security experts as follows:

Mr. Putin suffered nothing worse than a warning… — no sanctions, no counter cyberstrikes, no embarrassing revelations engineered by the United States. And he now has the satisfaction of dealing with President-elect Donald J. Trump, who during the campaign praised him, promised to build a more productive relationship with Russia and maintained there was no evidence that the Russians were behind the hacking.

John Schindler, who has been something of the sharp-elbowed Cassandra for our Troy, puts the matter pointedly in an Observer column today:

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.

Schindler’s polemic bookends an article of his from around a year ago ((“Obama Fails to Fight Putin’s Propaganda Machine,” The Observer, 5 November 2015)) from which he liberally quotes. As for the new one, its title is “The Kremlin Didn’t Sink Hillary—Obama Did.” As little as people in the “NeverNever,” pox-on-both-houses camp, including Schindler, wanted to admit it, the title “The Kremlin Didn’t Elect Trump – Obama Did” would be virtually equivalent.

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The discussion also raises the issue of complacency in regard to national sovereignty or one might say national honor as the or a key defect in the Democratic Party’s 2016 campaign, and, increasingly, its general outlook or self-presentation at least since 2012, when Obama/Biden tried to look the part of fierce defenders. In response to a foreign government’s participation in what the Democrats themselves and other opponents of Donald Trump view as a devastating blow, or devastating twin blows, against the nation – the “repeal of the Republic” (Andrew Sullivan) or the “worst thing that has happened to the world in my life” (Jonathan Chait), in other words something approaching if not already equating with a national and global emergency – no one, apparently, did much more than to make a few political speeches in partisan contexts, to offer statements to the press, to voice warnings without known follow-through, and, possibly, to engage in or to plan to engage in or to threaten to engage in unspecified covert actions.

Glenn Greenwald took to Twitter to address these matters in partisan-political terms:

I have focused more on the president’s official rather than partisan responsibility:

In sum, observers from center right to left, and including recognized security experts as well as pundits or political intellectuals, are now claiming that the Russian government under Vladimir Putin made war upon the United States of America; that the government and people of the United States, under the presidency of Barack Obama, failed to offer a serious defense; and that we in America as well as friends and allies have suffered an historic defeat… as Operation American Greatness proceeds.

Put most broadly: The Russian Connection in the 2016 Elections reflects and realizes a failure of American world leadership – or, for the sake of precision, if at the risk of preciosity, of a certain type of failure of a certain type of leadership – across the post-Cold War period, or historical moment, from Clinton to Bush to Obama and now to Trump, each the truest legacy of his predecessor, tracing a movement through forms of dereliction, and from unquestionable ascendancy to comprehensive self-disqualification.

2 comments on ““The Kremlin Didn’t Elect Trump – Obama Did”: Outline of Implications of Russian Information Operations in the 2016 Elections

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  1. Given the state of confusion/unknowledge about the whole situation, I think it’s premature to characterize O’s response to the put(in)ative attack. We don’t what if there was an attack, if there was, its scope, or O’s response.

    I think Bratton’s The Stack discusses these issues, but I’d have to go back and review it to be sure if its relevant. This lays out some of the basic issues of cyberwar.

  2. The discussion doesn’t concern “an attack,” but a campaign on multiple levels, including efforts whose existence is widely acknowledged (propaganda via “Fake News” and other means); is disputed by some, but well-evidenced (e.g., coordination between Wikileaks and Russia, as confirmed by the Obama Admin); is in dispute, but well enough evidenced to draw some preliminary conclusions pending further investigation (connections of Trump’s people to Russia); or is the subject of discussion mostly confined to the fringe but with some mainstream/expert support (hacked votes).

    The Obama Administration clearly believed that an effort significant enough to get them to pick up the “hotline” phone was under way (see the Sanger article). So, it’s not merely or mainly a question of “cyberwar,” which is narrower than “information operations,” which include propaganda and disinformation).

    I began tweeting or meta-tweeting about this subject mainly to highlight the implications of a line that certain prominent Obama-supporters were taking. It was in the process of discussion and background-reading that I found myself increasingly persuaded by the underlying case and working back from it to larger political-historical themes.

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