No one from the Obama administration seems to remember when they figured out they were falling victim to one of the greatest intelligence operations in history.
"This was the kind of realization that came incrementally," a former senior State Department official told BuzzFeed News. "There wasn’t a moment where you realized that Pearl Harbor had been hit by kamikaze or that the World Trade Center has been hit."
Now, as two congressional committees and the FBI investigate Russia's role in the election, former Obama officials find themselves grappling with a new legacy, one that formed at the 11th hour of their time in power. As they looked toward a world where pariahs like Iran and Cuba were won over with diplomacy, they fell victim to a sneak attack by an old adversary. And they let it happen, offering up stern warnings and finger-wagging instead of adequately punishing Russia for achieving something that even the Soviet Union at the height of its power couldn’t manage: meddling in the US election and rattling Americans’ trust in their democracy.
Initially, news that Russia-backed hackers had infiltrated the email systems of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) split the Obama administration. White House staffers struggled to wrap their heads around the scale of what occurred and found themselves unsure of how to respond without appearing to give Hillary Clinton a boost. The State Department's staff were torn over how far to press the matter with Russia, given other priorities like struggling to find an endgame for the Syrian civil war. Across the Potomac, the Defense Department was pushing for a strong response against Russia. "The White House was more in listening mode," a former Defense Department official told BuzzFeed News.
The official described what ensued as "endless discussion after endless discussion."
After weeks of intense debate, the White House’s ambivalence won. On Oct. 7, a Friday afternoon, they released a carefully worded, three-paragraph statement, saying that the US intelligence community was "confident" that the Russian government was behind the hack. White House staffers thought publicly blaming Russia would draw the public’s attention and keep Moscow in line by making clear the US was willing to call them out. They also functioned under the assumption that Hillary Clinton would win and take a more robust approach down the line.
"When we rolled that out on Oct. 7, we thought this would get a huge amount of pickup and play and be a catalyzing moment for the country, when the United States government — the intelligence community and DHS — announced jointly that Russians were trying to hack our election," Ned Price, then the chief spokesperson for the National Security Council (NSC), told BuzzFeed News.
"A colleague of mine at another department was on the phone with a reporter, who was asking him questions about the statement," Price said. "My colleague then recalled hearing from the reporter, ‘Oh my god. I’ll have to call you back.'"
One hour after the statement dropped, the Washington Post published the 2005 "grab them by the pussy" tape. Less than half an hour later, WikiLeaks began dumping a new series of emails, this time hacked from the account of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman.
The reporter never called back.
Former officials have placed a lot of hype in the statement — the key point of which was that Russia was behind the leaks, something that had been reported for months by cybersecurity companies and journalists — during the months since leaving office. But the fact remains that the brief release had been a small shot — and it missed.
Was a press release released on a Friday afternoon, months after the hack, too little, too late? Not according to Obama administration officials. Just naming Russia, they say, should have been a sharp response enough to brush Russia back. And it wasn't their fault if no one paid attention to this press release, they say. “It was the Trump tape that really took all of the oxygen out of the room and led to relatively scant coverage of that statement," said Price. "I think that was not received in the way that some of us had hoped, that it would be sort of a galvanizing force."
Less than five weeks later, Trump won the election and everything changed. Inside the Obama administration there was a growing realization about the true scope of what Russia had done — and how little they had done to combat it. On Dec. 9, President Barack Obama announced an intelligence review to make clear just what Moscow’s role in the election had been. One month later, the public version of that assessment from the 17 intelligence agencies was released, concluding that "Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election."
The story of the Obama administration’s cautious response to the Russian campaign has been widely told, but the question of how and why the administration chose to downplay and downgrade Russian aggression has remained largely mysterious, shadowed by self-justifying public statements by the administration and strident accusations from their enemies.
This account of the response to Russia’s meddling in the US election comes from interviews with ten former Obama administration officials, most of whom were deeply involved in deliberations. Almost all requested anonymity to speak freely about those internal debates.
It reveals the administration’s almost myopic focus on two goals — preventing Russia from directly tampering with votes on Election Day and ensuring that the White House not be seen as wading into presidential politics, its internal divisions, and its efforts to balance foreign policy and domestic politics.
"I think we didn’t fully understand — I didn’t — the degree to which the DNC hacks and the Podesta leaks ended up being a comprehensive campaign," said a former White House official.
Many people inside the White House learned that the Russians had hacked the DNC the way most of America did — via a June 14 Washington Post report that cited research by cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike. Even then, the hack was viewed as no different than the other hacks from Russian and Chinese agents that had become a frequent occurrence over the last several years: a problem, but not one that would have a longer term effect than, say, the Office of Personnel and Management breach the previous year or Russia’s intrusion into the White House’s unclassified email system.
The day after the Washington Post report, a hacker named Guccifer 2.0, who claimed to be Romanian, took credit for the hack, saying he’d passed the stolen data on to WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks began publishing in July, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention.
Inside the White House, Homeland Security Adviser Lisa Monaco and the National Security Council’s cyber directorate took the lead on coordinating the government’s initial response, a second former White House official told BuzzFeed News.
Officials said they weren’t shocked by the Russians’ methods — one former senior White House official recalled Moscow releasing the audio of then–assistant secretary of state for European affairs Victoria Nuland’s phone conversations about Ukraine, including one in which she clearly declared "Fuck the EU," which strained the US–Europe relationship. What was shocking was Russia now deploying those tactics against the United States domestically.
The political nature of the revelations made the White House think twice about speaking out quickly. "Some of this, we tried to be a completely neutral arbiter of this," the first former White House official said. "It soon became clear this was weaponization of political emails, so the last thing we wanted was to seem like we were aiding the Clinton campaign [by going public with what was already known], or unduly benefited the campaign."
Through the early days of the attempt to get a handle on Moscow’s actions and motives, the circle of people in the administration who knew the extent of the Russian hacking was kept small. One former State Department official recalled hearing very little about the hack in the days and weeks after the CrowdStrike report. "Every now and then it would come up, be referenced in an oblique way in a staff meeting with the secretary," they said. "I do remember some references to conversations at the White House and in the context of in a morning meeting, Toria Nuland saying something like, 'There’s going to be a meeting at the White House on the Russian hack.'"
The discussion at these early meetings of officials from across the government — known as interagency policy committee meetings, or IPCs in DC-speak — was open-ended, with NSC staffers who chaired the meeting gathering ideas, and members trying to be certain that the initial CrowdStrike analysis was accurate.
The Pentagon from the first was advocating for a "very strong response," rather than just words, the former Defense Department official told BuzzFeed News. But the White House "signaled they weren’t ready to respond just yet, so we fleshed out options, we drafted papers, second, third, fourth versions of those papers. And we kept going around in circles to the point that it was extremely frustrating."
"I was of the view that if we were to go public with the information that Russia had hacked the election, we needed to follow up with a policy response, otherwise we were just acknowledging that we knew, but we didn’t have the political will to actually deliver a response," they said.
The second former White House official said that by the time the debate had reached the cabinet-level principals meetings of the NSC, the decision on how to move forward had been reached. The plan: Obama would pull Putin aside during a September meeting of the G20 in China and tell the Russian leader that the US would not tolerate direct interference in the Nov. 8 vote. Obama later revealed he had told Putin to "cut it out."
Some inside the administration knew the warning to Putin wasn’t enough. "I thought it was a really bad move to finger-wag without any consequences or actions to back it up," the former Defense Department official told BuzzFeed News.
Ensuring the integrity of the election was the top priority. With evidence that the Kremlin was willing to tamper with the election’s narrative, officials worried: Would they attempt to alter the outcome of the vote more directly?
"We were all worried about both — people were particularly freaked out at the possibility that they could actually get in and change votes," said the second former White House official.
The White House and Department of Homeland Security worked with state-level election officials to make sure that didn’t happen.
"It was a challenge to get state and local officials to take us up on offers of assistance and understand that we’re talking about vulnerabilities that they should be focused on — broadly cybersecurity issues not just Russian issues — in a charged political environment," a former administration official said. "Most state and local officials immediately pushed back, saying, 'We don’t want a federal takeover of our election system.'"
Eventually, federal officials realized that the chances of Russia penetrating the disconnected, decentralized election systems across the country were slim. DHS still managed to persuade 48 out of 50 states to accept the federal government’s help in shoring up their systems by Election Day.
As that was happening, through late August and into the fall, the administration was preoccupied with making sure that it didn’t appear to be attempting to tip the scales in favor of Clinton, the Democrat nominee who had been Obama’s first secretary of state. That fear was enough to sideline Ben Rhodes, one of Obama’s longest serving staffers and the person in charge of crafting the White House’s national security communications strategy, from meetings about the potential response against Russia. His close friendship with Jake Sullivan, formerly deputy chief of staff in Clinton’s State Department and at the time a senior member of the campaign, prompted fears that his presence could be seen as a back channel to Clinton.
"We thought of all these ways in which that could potentially backfire, not only in terms of helping Trump, but our view then was that the Russians didn’t think Trump could win and it was just to hurt Clinton," the second former White House official said.
"I think that was a genuine concern before the election that it would appear that way," the former Pentagon official told BuzzFeed News. And though he did not share their views, he said, "I think the people who harbored that fear or concern were genuine."
It was to that end that the administration came to the eventual decision to not launch any sort of proportionate response against Russia until after Election Day had passed.
The focus shifted to the public statement of attribution. On Sep. 22, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrats on the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, released a statement blaming Russia for the DNC hacks, after the administration briefed the "Gang of Eight" — the leadership of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, the Speaker of the House, the House minority leader, and the Senate majority and minority leaders — on Russian involvement in the hack.
"We knew that once we briefed Congress, the people when they were briefed would make their own decision about what they did with that information, so we were neutral about what they did," the former senior White House official said.
Even then, some within the administration were concerned about publicly naming Moscow. "There were folks in the State Department who were trying to not rock the boat," the second former White House official said. “The intelligence community was worried about burning sources and methods. Comey was nervous about the attribution statement because his name would be on it, and he was worried about being seen as placing his thumb on the scale of the election.”
The intelligence community's unwillingness to confirm Russia's involvement until October drove those on the policymaking side of government mad, a former senior administration official said. "Those on the policy side and in the hacking community were saying Russia, Russia, Russia, they were behind Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks [the website that published former Secretary of State Colin Powell's hacked emails]," they said.
On Oct. 5, 2016, the then-principals of the National Security Council, including Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, met for the final review of the attribution statement. Comey’s concerns about seeming biased held up the release of the statement for two days. The FBI’s seal was absent from the final document.
Kerry, two former State Department officials told BuzzFeed News, by this time agreed with the White House that the election was too close to take action, but had staffers begin drawing up a list of potential sanctions targets, ready to be launched as soon as the election had been decided.
Obama would warn Putin once more before the vote, using a system intended to avert nuclear war, NBC reported in December. "International law, including the law for armed conflict, applies to actions in cyberspace," read part of the message the White House sent over the digital "red phone" system on Oct. 31. "We will hold Russia to those standards."
Nine days later, Trump won the election. The original concern — that outside actors would alter votes — was a bust. Russia didn’t hack voting machines.
The countdown clock began on Nov. 9: 73 days left in the Obama administration and 73 days to come up with a response to Moscow’s actions that wouldn’t lead to open hostilities, as the first former White House official framed it. The key, he said, was to figure out what had just happened, convince the American people that it had happened, and ensure that the incoming administration — led by a person who had publicly asked Russia to hack and release Clinton’s emails during the campaign — didn’t give Moscow a pass for what it had done.
But soon afterward it became clear that the clock would be allowed to run down. The decision to hold off on the US response came at the request of the outgoing president, looking to get buy-in from his successor. "Obama is thinking he can have a cordial transition of power, so we lose all of November," a second former senior administration official said. "He thinks Trump is going to be serious about the Russia hacking when he sees the evidence, so that he could turn over this file and be assured that Trump would investigate properly."
The two men met in the Oval Office on Nov. 11. By December, Obama appeared to no longer be holding out hope and was finally ready to move on Russia. On Dec. 9, he announced an intelligence review, which had been his idea, according to the senior White House staffer. The goal was to create a "lessons learned" document about what had gone wrong in the last election — and how to prevent it in the future.
By mid-December, the NSC was working to finalize a set of proposals meant to punish Russia for its interference. Everything from covert cyber responses to sanctions against specific Russian entities was debated.
The Pentagon, as it had before the election, pressed for a strong response. "Our argument was that we could do some restrictions in the defense industrial sector that would get at some of the capabilities that Russia has in both cyber and otherwise," the former Pentagon official said. "I was advocating for more sanctions on the financial sphere where the dollar is king and we don’t have to rely on our European allies," he said.
As the debate continued, corners of the administration began to fear that the State Department, and particularly Kerry himself, was overly concerned with possibly upsetting the Russians to the detriment of efforts to end the war in Syria and other areas where cooperation between the two countries was seen as key.
"John Kerry to almost the very end really thought that — he just kept throwing the ball down the field over and over and over again and kept getting a pick six," Andrew Exum, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy, said about Kerry’s insistence on not upsetting Russia’s willingness to coordinate on Syria. "The president, to his discredit, kept letting him throw the ball."
"Kerry did not want any response to interfere with his Syria diplomacy,” the former senior White House official said. “So there was always some meeting [with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov] that was looming."
Kerry did push for a proposed 9/11 Commission-style investigation, which the National Security Council discussed on Dec. 6. Obama ultimately rejected Kerry’s proposal, The New Yorker first reported in February, “in part because he was convinced that Republicans in Congress would regard it as a partisan exercise.”
"Sure, everybody might want a commission, but I worked with the 9/11 Commission," Ben Rhodes told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. "The commission only works if the conditions are right."
Talk moved to levying a set of economic sanctions against various actors, from Russian spy agencies to hackers, and targeting Russian diplomats based in the US, including at two Russian facilities in the US thought to be hubs for intelligence work.
"Everyone was in agreement that we should go after individuals — no big debate in the interagency on the sanctions themselves," the second former White House official said. "The real debate was on the number of Russian ‘diplomats’ to PNG [persona non grata] and whether we should close these dachas," they said, referring to the Russian facilities. "State and Defense, really State, were worried that the Russians would retaliate by kicking out our people — the problem was Russia has way more people in the US doing those things than we have there."
The FBI, CIA, and DNI Clapper’s office were strongly in favor of the expulsion of the Russian "diplomats," the senior White House official said, and also the move to close down the Russian facility in Maryland.
(The former Pentagon official remembers it differently: "I personally was very much opposed to the notion of declaring all those people PNG, because from our perspective — not just me but a broader set at Pentagon — it was largely a symbolic response.")
By the time the final proposals were on the table, everyone meeting in the White House’s Situation Room on Dec. 22, the day before the government shutdown for Christmas, was exhausted. "People were pretty exasperated and ready to sign off on whatever was proposed within reason," said the former senior State Department official. "It’s hard to know if that’s because they had come to a considered decision based on analysis or were frustrated they hadn’t done it already or that the administration was already under a degree of criticism. At that point, everybody was ready to go."
The very last item of business brought up at the meeting was a surprisingly weighty one: Should Putin himself be among those sanctioned? Almost an afterthought despite the seriousness of the matter, the discussion around the Situation Room table was brief. In the end, Putin was left off the final tally of Russian entities and officials. The only time the US sanctions heads of state, the then–senior White House official said, is when regime change is the preferred outcome.
In the end, the administration eventually released on Dec. 29 what was seen even at the time as a muted response: a set of sanctions were levied against entities and individuals in Russia including the GRU, the military intelligence agency, and the FSB, the internal security agency, together thought to be the powers behind the hacking groups Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear; 35 Russian diplomats were expelled from the US as persona non grata for their connection to the hacks; and the two Russian facilities were shut down.
The response package was rolled out with the promise that aside from the publicly declared actions, other classified operations were being set in motion behind the scenes. Putin responded with a shrug. (Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was fired when it was revealed that he’d not only been in contact with the Russians about the sanctions, but lied to Vice President Mike Pence about it.)
Two weeks after the unclassified intelligence assessment declared that Russia’s goal was helping Trump get elected, Trump was inaugurated and the Obama administration was out, with officials left grappling with their, and their boss’s, legacy: failing to punish Russia for its attempts to swing the 2016 campaign and therefore allowing the Kremlin to undermine US voters’ faith in their own elections.
"In going right down the middle, maybe we didn’t go close enough to the sidelines in terms of our response," the first former White House official said.
Some still fail to recognize how they failed to deal with one of the most audacious intelligence operations in history. Others ponder whether Moscow’s success was almost inevitable thanks to mistakes made earlier in the administration.
"Put it this way: If there was a problem, I don’t think it has anything to do with what we could’ve done in September or October," the former senior White House official said about the pace of the US’s countermeasures. "It’s about what happened years ago, when we didn’t anticipate that Russia might do in the US what they did in other places. I would actually play back the tape two or three years and think, Should we have anticipated that Russia might replicate its European tactics in the US more aggressively? But by the time this is all being debated in the Situation Room, they’ve already hacked everything."
"We could have released all sorts of derogatory information on Putin for example, we could’ve sanctioned entire sections of the Russian economy," the second former White House official said. "We certainly could’ve done more." But they pointed to the risk of escalation between the US and Russia: "This is much more art than science — you’re trying to figure out what a proportionate response is that allows you to control escalation."
"I think it was an appropriate response," said a second former State Department official. "Could it could have gone further? Of course it could have."
And as for the covert actions that the Obama administration promised were being carried out, the defense official verbally shrugged when asked: "Anything else that might have been done is, for me, rather underwhelming." ●
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Hayes Brown is a world news editor and reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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