The Obama administration halted work on a robust set of countermeasures to Russian government operations that aimed to disrupt American democracy in the runup to the 2016 presidential election, according to two officials who led the development of those countermeasures.
When top officials in the administration spread allegations of a large Russian influence operation, some of their subordinates were authorized to develop deterrent actions, including aggressive cyber operations. But when they were to begin those operations, the actions were shelved, the officials testified before Congress on June 20.
“Those actions were put on the backburner,” said Michael Daniel, former National Security Council cybersecurity coordinator, in his testimony to the Senate intelligence committee.
Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, was among people who at the time pushed for dedicating more intelligence resources to finding out what Russia was actually doing.
In June, then-State Secretary John Kerry authorized Nuland’s team to cooperate with other agencies and develop deterrent options to any Russian activities targeting the election, she said in her Wednesday testimony.
Roughly around that same time, then-CIA Director John Brennan borrowed some people from the FBI and the National Security Agency to put together a group that was supplying a stream of allegations about the Russian operation, according to an account published by Yahoo News, the source of which appears to primarily be Brennan himself. The allegations were then spread to top-level administration officials.
Some of the allegations apparently came from the infamous Steele dossier, put together by Christopher Steele, a former MI6 British intelligence agent, using second- and thirdhand sources close to Kremlin. The dossier was characterized as “salacious and unverified” by then-FBI Director James Comey.
Steele’s work was paid for by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Nuland said she saw “excerpts” from the unfinished dossier in mid-July 2016.
Other allegations, about Russians hacking the emails of the Democratic National Committee, came from Crowdstrike, a cybersecurity firm that had two former FBI officials among its executives and was retained by the same law firm, Perkins Coie, that arranged the payments to Steele.
The DNC server was never handed over to the FBI for examination. Multiple intelligence agencies determined, based on data from Crowdstrike, that the server was hacked by Russians.
Daniel said his cybersecurity team was trying to figure out what the Russians would want to do if they were to try influencing the election.
“We very quickly realized, as part of that process, that the voting machines, while vulnerable, were not the most likely vector for any Russian activity, nor was changing the outcome of the election the most likely goal,” he said. “Instead, undermining confidence in the electoral process and disrupting it were the more likely goals.”
By July, the team developed a “full suite of options,” Nuland said in her Wednesday testimony.
Those options remain largely classified, but, according to Daniel, they “spanned the full gamut of U.S. power, including diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement, economic, and cyber activities.”
Among the options was the “use our cyber capabilities to impose costs on the Russians both openly, to demonstrate that we could do it, as a deterrent, and also clandestinely to disrupt their operations as well,” Nuland said.
But in late August, Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, called Daniel to her office and told him to “knock it off,” Yahoo News reported.
“I was incredulous and in disbelief. It took me a moment to process. In my head I was like, ‘Did I hear that correctly?’” said Daniel Prieto, one of Daniel’s top deputies.
“Why the hell are we standing down? Michael, can you help us understand?“ he recalled saying.
Daniel confirmed in his testimony the accuracy of Prieto’s portrayal of the meeting.
Daniel said they were told the administration was afraid their work on the countermeasures would be leaked. They were told to work on securing the local election systems instead.
In the end, the only deterrent action from the administration was Obama’s warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin during the September 2016 G20 summit.
The administration’s actions were inconsistent with Nuland’s understanding of how the Russian government operates.
Putin is a leader that would keep pushing unless his moves are made to “cost directly for him and his circle in his own context,” Nuland said, adding that she believed “there were deterrence measures that we could have taken and should have taken earlier in 2016.”
In the end, none of Daniel’s fears about voting disruption came true, he said.
A year later, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians and three Russian companies for running a troll farm that created thousands of fake Twitter accounts and 3,500 Facebook ads, trying to spread discord among Americans. While the numbers look large, they represent a tiny fraction of social media content consumed by Americans. Rather than supporting a specific candidate, most of the ads played one or the other side of contentious issues like immigration, gun control, and racism.
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Chappel gained a huge YouTube following with a channel dedicated to exposing the truth about China. His foray into American politics is already proving to be a success. His channel, American Uncovered, can be found here.