The Slatest

Eye-Popping WaPo Report Explains Why Obama’s Retaliation Against Putin Was So Weak

President Obama speaks at his final press conference at the White House in Washington on Jan. 18.

AFP/Getty Images

The Washington Post published a lengthy exclusive Friday morning detailing the Obama administration’s response in its waning days to reports that Russia had worked to interfere in the 2016 election. From the Post:

Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.

But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

The Post’s report details internal debates about how to respond to the information, which was tightly guarded with extraordinary measures. The administration ultimately decided to pursue a set of limited sanctions in December, disappointing some officials. “The punishment did not fit the crime,” former Russia ambassador Michael McFaul told the Post. A broader array of options was considered and efforts were undertaken to bolster electoral security, but the administration’s response was stymied by a number of factors. Here are a few key insights from the Post’s reporting:

Obama was wary of politicizing the scandal: As has been previously reported, President Obama and others in the administration were deeply wary of creating the impression that responses to Russia’s actions were motivated by a desire to aid Hillary Clinton’s election. The Post reports, for instance, that in September, Obama intentionally refused to place his signature on the intelligence community’s public statement about Russia’s actions. “To some, Obama’s determination to avoid politicizing the Russia issue had the opposite effect,” the Post’s Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous write. “It meant that he allowed politics to shape his administration’s response to what some believed should have been treated purely as a national security threat.”

Republicans obstructed efforts to address the situation: The Post’s report mentions Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s effort to warn state officials about the vulnerability of their election systems to attack. At a House hearing Wednesday, Johnson said that the responses had “ranged from neutral to negative.” This was in part because Republican officials framed the effort as a nefarious attempt to infringe on state sovereignty. Republicans on the Hill were no more responsive. From the Post:

The Dems were, ‘Hey, we have to tell the public,’ ” recalled one participant. But Republicans resisted, arguing that to warn the public that the election was under attack would further Russia’s aim of sapping confidence in the system.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.

Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.

Clinton’s likelihood of victory shaped the response: The administration assumed that a highly likely Clinton victory in November would give the new administration ample time to pursue aggressive counteraction. Trump’s election, of course, upended things:

Suddenly, Obama faced a successor who had praised WikiLeaks and prodded Moscow to steal even more Clinton emails, while dismissing the idea that Russia was any more responsible for the election assault than “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”

“The White House was mortified and shocked,” said a former administration official. “From national security people there was a sense of immediate introspection, of, ‘Wow, did we mishandle this.’ ”

Trump’s victory eventually contributed to a new sense of urgency in the administration about punitive options. One of the particularly dramatic countermeasures that Obama put into development was a major cyberweapon:

The cyber operation is still in its early stages and involves deploying “implants” in Russian networks deemed “important to the adversary and that would cause them pain and discomfort if they were disrupted,” a former U.S. official said.

The implants were developed by the NSA and designed so that they could be triggered remotely as part of retaliatory cyber-strike in the face of Russian aggression, whether an attack on a power grid or interference in a future presidential race.

Officials familiar with the measures said that there was concern among some in the administration that the damage caused by the implants could be difficult to contain.

The weapon is just one of many details in the report that could have been ripped straight from a spy fiction novel. Other details are particularly filmic and merit a full reading. Amid the sanctions, Obama’s State Department shut down a pair of Russian compounds in the U.S. suspected to be centers for espionage. And the motivation behind those closures included a previously unreported confrontation between a Russian military helicopter and “a vehicle being driven by the U.S. defense attache … on a stretch of road between Murmansk and Pechenga in northern Russia.” Overall, the report illustrates the extent to which the Obama administration, contrary to the implication of one of Trump’s recent tweets, was wracked with anxiety about how to address Russia’s actions.