How the Obama Administration Watched the Russians Meddle in Our Election and Then Gave a "Stand Down" Order

Michael Isikoff, the guy who wouldn’t run the Monica Lewinsky story but would take dictation from Fusion GPS and Christopher Steele, has teamed up with David Corn of Mother freakin Jones to write a book on the Russian meddling in the 2016 election. It is titled Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump and Mother Jones is running excerpts (here | here). They are eye-opening. The takeaway one gets is that there is a lot of behind the scenes pressure on Obama and his sycophants to explain how this bullsh** story Russian meddling was allowed to happen. And we are discovering that there are enough busses for just about anyone to be thrown under. And John Brennan is doing the tossing.


Brennan spoke with FBI Director James Comey and Admiral Mike Rogers, the head of the NSA, and asked them to dispatch to the CIA their experts to form a working group at Langley that would review the intelligence and figure out the full scope and nature of the Russian operation. Brennan was thinking about the lessons of the 9/11 attack. Al Qaeda had been able to pull off that operation partly because US intelligence agencies—several of which had collected bits of intelligence regarding the plotters before the attack—had not shared the material within the intelligence community. Brennan wanted a process in which NSA, FBI, and CIA experts could freely share with each other the information each agency had on the Russian operation—even the most sensitive information that tended not to be disseminated throughout the full intelligence community.

Brennan realized this was what he would later call “an exceptionally, exceptionally sensitive issue.” Here was an active counterintelligence case—already begun by the FBI—aiming at uncovering and stopping Russian covert activity in the middle of a US presidential campaign. And it included digging into whether it involved Americans in contact with Russia.

The article goes on to describe a “principals only” meetings in the NSC, i.e. meetings where only the heads of agencies and very senior White House staff were allowed to attend, meetings that had no distributed agenda and about which the attendees were not allowed to talk to anyone. These meetings were trying to decide what Russian motives were.


At this point, Obama’s top national security officials were uncertain how to respond. As they would later explain it, any steps they might take-calling out the Russians, imposing sanctions, raising alarms about the penetrations of state systems—could draw greater attention to the issue and maybe even help cause the disorder the Kremlin sought. A high‑profile U.S. government reaction, they worried, could amplify the psychological effects of the Russian attack and help Moscow achieve its end. “There was a concern if we did too much to spin this up into an Obama-Putin face-off, it would help the Russians achieve their objectives,” a participant in the principals meeting later noted. “It would create chaos, help Trump, and hurt Clinton. We had to figure out how to do this in a way so we wouldn’t create an own-goal. We had a strong sense of the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm.”

A parallel concern for them was how the Obama administration could respond to the Russian attack without appearing too partisan. Obama was actively campaigning for Clinton. Would a tough and vocal reaction be seen as a White House attempt to assist Clinton and stick it to Trump? They worried that if a White House effort to counter Russian meddling came across as a political maneuver, that could compromise the ability of the Department of Homeland Security to work with state and local election officials to make sure the voting system was sound. (Was Obama too worried about being perceived as prejudicial or conniving? “Perhaps there was some overcompensation,” a top Obama aide said later.)


At this point, we can safely call bullsh** on this. The exact same constraints applied after the election. And, as we’ve seen, no one in the Obama administration, much less Brennan, had any second thoughts about launching a totally unfounded story claiming that not only had the Russians favored Trump but asserting he may have colluded with them and that they may have kept Hillary Clinton from campaigning in Wisconsin and Central Pennsylvania and cost her the election.

One part of the group advocated active retaliation against Russia.

Michael Daniel and Celeste Wallander, the National Security Council’s top Russia analyst, were convinced the United States needed to strike back hard against the Russians and make it clear that Moscow had crossed a red line. Words alone wouldn’t do the trick; there had to be consequences. “I wanted to send a signal that we would not tolerate disruptions to our electoral process,” Daniel recalled. His basic argument: “The Russians are going to push as hard as they can until we start pushing back.”

Daniel and Wallander began drafting options for more aggressive responses beyond anything the Obama administration or the US government had ever before contemplated in response to a cyberattack. One proposal was to unleash the NSA to mount a series of far-reaching cyberattacks: to dismantle the Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks websites that had been leaking the emails and memos stolen from Democratic targets, to bombard Russian news sites with a wave of automated traffic in a denial-of-service attack that would shut the news sites down, and to launch an attack on the Russian intelligence agencies themselves, seeking to disrupt their command and control modes.

Knowing that Putin was notoriously protective of any information about his family, Wallander suggested targeting Putin himself. She proposed leaking snippets of classified intelligence to reveal the secret bank accounts in Latvia held for Putin’s daughters—a direct poke at the Russian president that would be sure to infuriate him. Wallander also brainstormed ideas with Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European affairs and a fellow hard-liner. They drafted other proposals: to dump dirt on Russian websites about Putin’s money, about the girlfriends of top Russian officials, about corruption in Putin’s United Russia party—essentially to give Putin a taste of his own medicine. “We wanted to raise the cost in a manner Putin recognized,” Nuland recalled.


And then the most Obama-like thing imaginable happened:

But Wallander and Daniel’s bosses at the White House were not on board. One day in late August, national security adviser Susan Rice called Daniel into her office and demanded he cease and desist from working on the cyber options he was developing. “Don’t get ahead of us,” she warned him. The White House was not prepared to endorse any of these ideas. Daniel and his team in the White House cyber response group were given strict orders: “Stand down.” She told Daniel to “knock it off,” he recalled.

Daniel walked back to his office. “That was one pissed-off national security adviser,” he told one of his aides.

At his morning staff meeting, Daniel matter-of-factly said to his team that it had to stop work on options to counter the Russian attack: “We’ve been told to stand down.” Daniel Prieto, one of Daniel’s top deputies, recalled, “I was incredulous and in disbelief. It took me a moment to process. In my head I was like, ‘Did I hear that correctly?’” Then Prieto spoke up, asking, “Why the hell are we standing down? Michael, can you help us understand?” Daniel informed them that the orders came from both Rice and Monaco. They were concerned that if the options were to leak, it would force Obama to act. “They didn’t want to box the president in,” Prieto subsequently said.

If any of this sounds familiar, think about the response to Benghazi, or Syria nerve agent attacks, or just about any other crisis in the Obama years.

The principals did discuss cyber responses. The prospect of hitting back with cyber caused trepidation within the deputies and principals meetings. The United States was telling Russia this sort of meddling was unacceptable. If Washington engaged in the same type of covert combat, some of the principals believed, Washington’s demand would mean nothing, and there could be an escalation in cyber warfare. There were concerns that the United States would have more to lose in all-out cyberwar.


“If we got into a tit-for-tat on cyber with the Russians, it would not be to our advantage,” a participant later remarked. “They could do more to damage us in a cyber war or have a greater impact.” In one of the meetings, Clapper said he was worried that Russia might respond with cyber attacks against America’s critical infrastructure—and possibly shut down the electrical grid.

And that famous meeting where Obama told Putin to “cut it out.” Well, Putin shat himself in terror:

Obama threatened—but never did pull the trigger. In early September, during the G-20 summit in Hangzhou, China, the president privately confronted Putin in what a senior White House official described as a “candid” and “blunt” talk. The president informed his aides he had delivered the message he and his advisers had crafted: We know what you’re doing, if you don’t cut it out. We will impose onerous and unprecedented penalties. One senior US government official briefed on the meeting was told that the president said to Putin in effect, “You fuck with us over the election and we’ll crash your economy.”

Here are the key points. Contrary to a lot of stuff that has been said, the Obama administration not only knew very early that the Russians were meddling (this is confirmed by the Mueller indictment of Russian hackers which shows they were under physical and electronic surveillance when some of them visited the U.S. in 2014) but they stood by and watched it happen. They didn’t care because they thought Hillary was going to win and they were afraid that any public action would make it look like the Obama administration was trying to discredit Trump. They were doing this in secret via their use of the Christopher Steele’s dossier, but that is a different story. Once the election was decided, they made their move in order to delegitimize Trump’s presidency. Ironically, they have been able to do that by criticizing Trump’s reluctance to virtually declare war on Russia when Obama, himself, weighed that option and rejected it.



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