Putin confidently executed a strategic spy operation against our election, specifically to harm the Democrats and their presidential nominee. Russia’s president didn’t fear retribution, as he correctly assessed that Obama was too timid and eager to win Russian favor to respond in any meaningful way. After all, the White House in 2015 quashed a tiny State Department effort to counter Kremlin disinformation, which was taken in Moscow as a green light to put their spies-telling-lies machine into overdrive.
Moreover, Putin knew what the Obama administration would (and would not) do about this massive and aggressive jump in the SpyWar thanks to his moles in Washington. It seems highly likely, based on available evidence, that Russian intelligence has been reading secret U.S. communications for years—that’s what moles inside NSA are for—which would give Putin the ability to beat American spies every step of the way, not to mention deep insights into top-level decision-making in Washington.
I have a sense that Americans are only now beginning to realize what has happened. Even leading Republicans are demanding to know what is going on. But unless something even more extraordinary occurs in the next few weeks, Russia’s American coup has already succeeded. No matter what happens next, the United States, its institutions, its place in the world, all have been left dangerously weakened, fractured, diminished.
European leaders are openly questioning America’s role in NATO. Beijing is flying nuclear bombers over the South China Sea. Russian and Syrian troops are retaking Aleppo from the rebels. That’s the sound of thunder in the distance; the world has changed.
Would such revelations weaken Putin’s hold on power? Perhaps not, most of his citizens are under no illusion over the reality of their ruling regime. But it would send a clear signal to the kleptocrats in the Kremlin as well as adversaries around the world that such asymmetric warfare tactics can and will be answered to in kind. It would make those engaging in business with Russia think twice about the reputation cost they could suffer. And it would help the American people better understand the true nature of Russia as an emerging adversary.
While the Obama administration may take a hit for making these revelations during a lame duck period, such a move could be deftly exploited by his successor even if he choses to re-engage with Moscow. After all, Donald Trump could easily distance himself from President Obama’s revelations while still benefiting from the added leverage it will offer, alongside a path to lifting sanctions. A book once said “Leverage: don’t do a deal without it.” That book? The Art of the Deal.
“I don’t think we have even begun to wake up to what Russia is doing when it comes to cyber warfare,” the MP said during the parliamentary debate on the crisis in Aleppo.
“Not only their interference, now proven, in the American presidential campaign, probably in our referendum last year – we don’t have the evidence for that yet but I think it’s highly probable – certainly in the French presidential election they will be involved, and there are already serious concerns in the German secret service.
“We’ve got to wake up to this! When are we going to wake up to this?”
...[I]n 2014 and 2015, a Russian hacking group began systematically targeting the State Department, the White House and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Each time, they eventually met with some form of success,” Michael Sulmeyer, a former cyberexpert for the secretary of defense, and Ben Buchanan, now both of the Harvard Cyber Security Project, wrote recently in a soon-to-be published paper for the Carnegie Endowment.The Russians grew stealthier and stealthier, tricking government computers into sending out data while disguising the electronic “command and control” messages that set off alarms for anyone looking for malicious actions. The State Department was so crippled that it repeatedly closed its systems to throw out the intruders. At one point, officials traveling to Vienna with Secretary of State John Kerry for the Iran nuclear negotiations had to set up commercial Gmail accounts just to communicate with one another and with reporters traveling with them.
Mr. Obama was briefed regularly on all this, but he made a decision that many in the White House now regret: He did not name Russians publicly, or issue sanctions. There was always a reason: fear of escalating a cyberwar, and concern that the United States needed Russia’s cooperation in negotiations over Syria.“We’d have all these circular meetings,” one senior State Department official said, “in which everyone agreed you had to push back at the Russians and push back hard. But it didn’t happen.”
So the Russians escalated again — breaking into systems not just for espionage, but to publish or broadcast what they found, known as “doxing” in the cyberworld.
As analysts who have spent years studying Russia’s influence campaigns, we’re confident the spooks have it mostly right: The Kremlin ran a sophisticated, multilayered operation that aimed to sow chaos in the U.S. political system, if not to elect Trump outright. But you don’t need a security clearance or a background in spycraft to come to that conclusion. All you need to do is open your eyes.
So how did Putin do it?It wasn’t by hacking election machines or manipulating the results, as some have suggested. That would be too crude. The Kremlin’s canny operatives didn’t change votes; they won them, influencing voters to choose Russia’s preferred outcome by pushing stolen information at just the right time—through slanted, or outright false stories on social media. As we detail in our recent report, based on 30 months of closely watching Russia’s online influence operations and monitoring some 7,000 accounts, the Kremlin’s troll army swarmed the web to spread disinformation and undermine trust in the electoral system.
And America was just the latest target.
Former CIA acting director Michael Morell called the intelligence agency’s conclusion that Russia meddled in the U.S. presidential election to help President-elect Donald Trump “the political equivalent of 9/11.”
“A foreign government messing around in our elections is, I think, an existential threat to our way of life. To me, and this is to me not an overstatement, this is the political equivalent of 9/11,” Morell said in an interview posted Sunday on The Cipher Brief. “It is huge and the fact that it hasn’t gotten more attention from the Obama Administration, Congress, and the mainstream media, is just shocking to me.”
Just as the Central Bank was involved in recent mobilisation exercises, predicated (rightly) on the fact that any major conflict with the West would also be fought with economic instruments, I wonder how far Moscow is coming to terms with the fact that the one-way ‘political war‘ currently being waged against the West might become a two-way one, at least to a limited extent. Those who live by the hack risk dying by it, too.
Obama is famously resistant (some have said he’s “allergic”) to escalating conflicts, especially if the conflict doesn’t threaten vital U.S. interests. But the United States has few interests more vital than assuring that a foreign power doesn’t tilt a presidential election toward a candidate that it favors. Obama and his White House aides are said to have mulled what to do about this Russian hack for “months.” I’d say they waited too long.