|ALEXI DRUZHININ / AFP-GETTY|
When House Majority Leader Harry Reid wrote to FBI Director James Comey two years ago today to complain that the FBI was foot dragging on mounting evidence "of a direct connection between the Russian government and Donald Trump's presidential campaign," it was not just the bluster of a politician grinding his partisan ax.
It was an acknowledgment, although Reid did not begin to realize the full scope at the time, of a failure of law enforcement, intelligence gathering and government policymaking so enormous that it would result 10 weeks later in the shocking victory of an utterly unqualified billionaire real estate mogul and reality TV star who has plunged America into a nightmare that has shaken the very foundations of its democracy. That failure was so immense that it still boggles the mind, and when all is said and done there will forever be an indelible stain on the otherwise noteworthy if occasionally fraught Barack Obama presidency because of it.
There is plenty of blame to go around for what can be called without exaggeration the crime of the century.
The FBI, CIA and NSA were asleep at the wheel, complacent Democrats assumed Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in, and Republicans after nearly eight years of partisan overkill were less interested in protecting the homeland than continuing to torment Obama. There was the scruples-free Trump campaign, Facebook and Twitter executives who ranged from naïve to delusional about how Vladimir Putin's cyberwarriors were playing them and unwitting voters, and a blindered news media who never grasped the big picture. But in the end, the buck had to stop somewhere and that was the Oval Office.
Writes veteran New York Times national security reporter David E. Sanger in his recently published The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age:
[W]ith the benefit of hindsight, the sequence of missed signals and misjudgments that allowed Russia to interfere in an American election seems incomprehensible and unforgivable -- and yet completely predictable for a nation that did not fully comprehend the many varieties of cyber conflict.
Many of the initial mistakes were born of of bureaucratic inertia and lack of imagination. That deadly combination allowed the Russian hackers complete freedom . . . before the [Democratic] party's leadership and the president of the United States were briefed about what was happening. The lost time proved disastrous.
If the Russians had struck at our election system in a more obvious way -- poisoning candidates it opposed, for example, as it has poisoned dissidents -- any president would have called them out and responded. Only because the gray zone of cyber conflict gave the Russians cover did Obama hesitate. By the time he responded, after the election, it was too late.In a story that bristles with ironies, none may be larger than the fact that despite the sophisticated Russian attacks, the U.S. had the greatest arsenal of cyber weapons in 2016 and still does today even if Trump -- in sync with his ignorance about cyber weaponry or anything else requiring a modicum of knowledge -- seems only vaguely aware of what is indisputably the future of warfare in the 21st century.
As it was, Trump's predecessor was relying on intelligence agencies that were woefully at sea when it came to fully comprehending the slow-motion mischief Putin was working to cybersabotage the Clinton campaign, and in doing so transforming Trump from a distant long shot to a real challenger.
Obama had received an "eyes only" report from CIA Director John Brennan in early August 2016 that was so sensitive that he kept it out of the President's Daily Brief, limiting its distribution to only a small handful of aides.
The bombshell report was drawn from a source deep inside the Russian government that detailed Putin's direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt the presidential race. It was followed a few days later by another report distributed to Comey, among others, that there was evidence members of the Trump campaign were collaborating with the Kremlin. Brennan had briefed Reid and a few other ranking lawmakers after alerting Obama, which prompted the majority leader's angry August 27, 2016 letter to the FBI director.
Meanwhile, WikiLeaks was publishing a trove of tens of thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee, a flood cheered on by candidate Trump that would continue through to Election Day.
|MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV / AFP-GETTY|
Despite the explicitness of the intelligence reports, Obama and his closest aides, and to a great extent the intelligence community itself, still failed to grasp even after three months of high-level White House meetings that the very foundation of American democracy had been assaulted.
This failure-to-grasp continued well beyond Election Day.
Since then, the drip-drip-drip of investigations and attendant minutiae -- What did happen at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016? What did Michael Cohen know? Did Rudy Giuliani really contradict himself yet again? -- have had the effect of obscuring the enormity of what Putin wrought with an informed assist from Trump and his confederates.
Even when the success of Putin's assault had become glaringly obvious as September 2016 rolled into October, Obama and other key players, most especially Comey, still fumbled and stumbled.
In the end, fears among several of Obama's top aides and the lame-duck president himself that the White House would be accused of trying to influence the election, which of course is exactly what Putin did with the eager approval of Trump and key campaign aides, as well as the overconfident view that Clinton would be the walk-off winner of the ferociously contested election, enabled a profoundly unqualified nut who never seriously thought he would win to wrest the keys to the national car from an eminently qualified if problematic opponent.
Obama and his aides considered dozens of options for deterring or punishing Russia in the weeks before the election. These included cyberattacks on Russia's infrastructure, the release of CIA-gathered material that might embarrass Putin by revealing his secret billions in stolen rubles, and sanctions so tough that officials told Obama they could "crater" the Russian economy.
While Obama's back-channel warnings to Moscow to cease and desist as the election campaign played out may have prompted it to abandon plans to escalate its attacks even further, including sabotaging U.S. voting systems, in the end Russia got off with a laughably negligible toughening of existing Obama administration-imposed sanctions in late December that when placed in the overall context of the Russia scandal was profoundly inadequate.
This weak-kneed response -- the expulsion of a mere 35 diplomats and closure of two Russian compounds, one of which had tapped in to vital communications channels unbeknownst to the U.S. -- was an open invitation for the Kremlin to work future mischief against the world's sole remaining superpower, which it surely will as the midterm elections approach, and advance Putin's dream of returning the former Soviet Union to its Cold War glory.
Obama did approve the insertion of cyberweapons inside Russia's infrastructure that could be "detonated" if tensions between Washington and Moscow escalated, but that still was in the planning stages when he left office. It should go without saying that nothing came of it after Trump assumed the presidency.
In another irony or two, as the Russians were doing their thing the U.S. launched super-secret cyber attacks on North Korea beginning in April 2016 and on the Islamic State only days after the election.
The spectacular failure of seven of the eight tests of North Korea's long proven Musudan long-range missile may have been the result of a so-called "left of launch" cyber attacks by the U.S. that resulted in launch pad explosions or premature crashes into the Sea of Japan. In Operation Glowing Symphony, the passwords of ISIS commanders were stolen, triggering chaos in the terrorists' network by sending convoys to the wrong destinations, blocking some fighters altogether and altering and deleting data.
North Korea did suspend its Musudan program for a time and the NSA-Cyber Command operation against ISIS worked, but only briefly. Sanger cites Obama defense secretary Ashton Carter's blistering assessment of what went wrong:
I was largely disappointed in Cyber Command's effectiveness against ISIS. It never really produced any effective cyberweapons or techniques. When Cybercom did produce something useful, the intelligence community tended to delay or prevent its use, claiming cyber operations would hinder intelligence collection. . . . In short, none of our intelligence agencies showed very well in the cyber fight.An overriding lesson of the cyber age is that its weaponry is entirely different from nuclear armory.
This lesson that has been painfully slow to sink in among defense and intelligence bureaucrats, many of whom still have a Cold War mindset just as many commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan have persisted in using failed Vietnam War era strategies, leaving our defense at home exposed and "wildly insufficient," in Sanger's words.
|MANDEL NGHAN / AFP-GETTY|
They don't fear us," Lieutenant General Paul Nakasone famously said of Iran, North Korea and Russia when speaking of the cyber threat to the U.S.'s infrastructure, computer networks and, yes, election systems during his confirmation hearing in March to run the NSA and Cyber Command.
Meanwhile, Obama did not exactly go it alone in confronting Russian election meddling, but few of his Democratic allies in Congress -- comfortable in their own Cold War mindsets and deeply naïve about cyber warfare -- understood the gravity of the situation.
Exceptions included Reid and Dianne Feinstein and Representative Adam Schiff, three ranking Democratic members of Congress who were members of what is colloquially known Gang of Eight, which is a legacy of the George W. Bush NSA warrantless surveillance scandal who by law are to be briefed on important intelligence matters.
Meanwhile, Republicans with exceptions hardly worthy noting remained smugly in denial, and no one more so than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as eminent a personification of evil to slither through the halls of the Capitol in generations. The Soviet Union and later Russia may have been the Republican Party's go-to bogeyman for decades, but their lapel-pin patriotism hardly obscured their relentless attacks on Obama and, after the election, the shameless kissing Trump's ring no matter how outrageous his conduct in order to get their agenda passed.
Historians will be dining out on this crime of the century for many years to come, and the defenses offered since Obama slipped into retirement are not worth the powder to blow them up.
Social media executives, notably Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, remain deeply in denial about their roles as Russian helpmates.
Zuckerberg, who for supposedly being so intelligent is extraordinarily dumb, famously wrote six days after the election that "Personally I think that the idea that fake news on Facebook . . . influenced the election in any way -- I think is a pretty crazy idea."
Nine days later, Zuckerberg essentially told Obama to buzz off when the president implored him at a summit meeting in Peru to take the threat of disinformation more seriously. Threatened subpoenas from Senate investigators have had a somewhat clarifying effect, but counting obscene profits remains what Zuckerberg and his peers do best despite evidence that social media is again being used by Russia in the run-up to the midterms.
"It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend," a former White House official said of the months of high-level hankie wringing after Russian interference became known. "I feel like we sort of choked."
Former Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough offers an ad hominem excuse, saying that while the administration regarded that interference as an attack on the "heart of our system," the first priority was "to defend the integrity of the vote."
"Importantly, we did that," McDonough adds disingenuously since no special measures were taken to safeguard voting machines, nor did Russia attempt any Election Day mischief.
"The punishment did not fit the crime," says Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014. "Russia violated our sovereignty, meddling in one of our most sacred acts as a democracy — electing our president. The Kremlin should have paid a much higher price for that attack."
It speaks volumes that not only has Russia not paid that price, but Trump endorsed a proposal by Putin at the Surrender Summit in Helsinki to question American citizens, including McFaul, who Putin considers to be an arch enemy of Russia, in return for giving the U.S. access to the 12 GRU intelligence officers indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for their key roles in election interference.
After a firestorm of criticism, Trump suddenly cooled to the idea. Even if it did come from the man who had so much to do with making him president.
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