Former Obama officials say Putin was largely undeterred in election meddling efforts
Two former Obama administration officials said Wednesday that a failure to recognize the “scope and scale” of Russia’s disinformation and influence campaign – alongside a reluctance to punish the Kremlin at a politically sensitive time – meant president Vladimir Putin was left largely undeterred during the 2016 presidential election.
In a hearing held by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Wednesday, former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, who also served in the George W. Bush administration as the U.S. ambassador to NATO, said that apart from issuing a “stern and personal” warning to Putin during a September G-20 summit, President Obama chose to wait until after the election to launch an investigation and a retaliatory response.
It was not until December 2016 that the Obama administration ordered sweeping sanctions, expelled 35 Russian diplomats, and closedin the U.S. At the time, Obama also suggested that other, non-public, actions would be taken against Moscow.
At least some of Obama’s reluctance to act earlier was due to public accusations made by then-candidate Trump that the election was “rigged” against him, Nuland said. “The White House was concerned that engaging more publicly would be seen as trying to put its thumb on the scale of the election,” she told the committee.
Still, Nuland conceded, the lack of real-time, material deterrence may have fueled the efforts of an “opportunistic” Kremlin. “I think it’s probably the case that the Russians expected deterrent measures and didn’t see them, and so felt they could keep pushing,” she said.
Although Obama’s September warning appeared to result in a temporary decrease in Russia’s activity, she said that by October 2016, it had “resumed in full force.”
Nuland also criticized elements of the U.S. intelligence community, whose overwhelming focus on classified intelligence, she said, prevented the “necessary integration” of open source information available on social media platforms.
Michael Daniel, who served as Obama’s cybersecurity coordinator from 2012 to 2017 and who also appeared as a witness, said that was in part because officials “didn’t actually have a complete understanding of the campaign that was being carried out” until late 2016 and 2017. “It is a picture that has evolved over time,” he said.
Daniel also thinks Russia’s incursion into U.S. election systems may have been more expansive than existing estimates suggest, telling the panel it was “highly likely” that Russia scanned the election systems of all 50 states. “It is more likely that we hadn’t detected it than that it didn’t occur,” he said.
Last year officials from the Department of Homeland Security said Russian hackers had targeted election systems in at least 21 states, though no evidence has emerged to suggest that any votes were changed.
Both Nuland and Daniel said Russia was likely to continue its efforts to exploit divisions in American society and that it had also inspired other actors to follow suit elsewhere. “Other countries and malign actors are now adapting and improving on Russia’s methodology – notably including China,” Nuland said.
Senators on the panel appeared unified in their judgment that the previous administration had been caught flat-footed in its response but acknowledged officials at the time were operating without the benefit of hindsight.
“Our focus should be to prevent, to deter, and to harden both our elections and our society for the future,” said Chairman Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, who said the committee would hear in the coming weeks from additional former senior officials, including former National Security Adviser Susan Rice and officials from the FBI and Department of Justice.
Wednesday’s hearing was part of the committee’s ongoing investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, and follows an earlier hearing on election security in March. Subsequent hearings are expected to focus on the role of social media and on whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russia as it carried out its influence campaign. The committee is expected to issue a final report with its conclusions and recommendations later this year.
Even as the committee continues its investigation, its members have consistently called for vigilance and sustained pushback from the Trump administration against ongoing efforts by Russia to undermine electoral systems and processes.
“2018 is already upon us, and this time, there are no excuses for missing the threat,” said Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Virginia, on Wednesday. “If we allow this to happen again, then shame on us.”