“They were warned. They underestimated it until it was too late.”
A report from Politico shows that national security officials warned former President Barack Obama of Russian interference in Western political systems, including the United States. Politico reported:
As early as 2014, the administration received a report that quoted a well-connected Russian source as saying that the Kremlin was building a disinformation arm that could be used to interfere in Western democracies. The report, according to an official familiar with it, included a quote from the Russian source telling U.S. officials in Moscow, “You have no idea how extensive these networks are in Europe … and in the U.S., Russia has penetrated media organizations, lobbying firms, political parties, governments and militaries in all of these places.”
That report was circulated among the National Security Council, intelligence agencies and the State Department via secure email and cable in the spring of 2014 as part of a larger assessment of Russian intentions in Ukraine, the official said.
The official went on to say that while an “explicit warning of a threat to U.S. elections,” but our officials in Moscow believe Obama’s administration “was too quick to dimiss the possibility that the Kremlin incursions could reach the United States.”
2014 Ukrainian Invasion was the Tipping Point
On February 22, 2014, the Ukrainian parliament ousted Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych after three months of protests in Kyiv, which left hundreds dead.
This did not please Moscow. The Kremlin went on to annex the Crimean peninsula after citizens voted to join the Russian Federation. Many international experts have doubted the election as legit and fair.
Then, in May, Ukraine held a new presidential election. I remember covering it for Breitbart and how disruptive it was, especially in east Ukraine, which had broken out into a war after Yanukovych’s ouster due to that part of the country housing many ethnic Russians. From Politico:
A Russia-backed cyberattack against Ukraine’s voting infrastructure during the May election was thwarted at the 11th hour. The cyberintrusions — which in some cases could have changed voter tallies — were discovered just hours before what could have been catastrophic outcomes.
“The reports from sources deep inside the Russian government were alarming,” one current U.S. official who served under the Obama administration said. “We started getting stuff in April, May [of 2014] that was extraordinary about the extent of the threat and the capacities the Russians were building.”
“We were worried [Putin] would try to test us,” recalled a former Obama administration official.
The White House
Politico spoke with former White House officials who “confirmed that the administration began receiving increased traffic in 2014 about Russian disinformation and covert influence in campaigns.” They also confirmed that the traffic did not include a specific warning to America. Politico continued:
But others in the national security community say an overly cautious Obama White House could have done more both during the campaign and in the previous months and years to alert Russia that it was aware of its intentions to subvert the U.S. democracy — along with those of some other Western countries — and would retaliate forcefully at the first sign of Russian interference.
POLITICO spoke with more than a dozen current and former officials from across the national security spectrum, including intelligence agencies, the State Department and the Pentagon. Almost all said they were aware of Russia’s aggressive cyberespionage and disinformation campaigns — especially after the dramatic Russian attempt to hack Ukrainian elections in 2014 — but felt that either the White House or key agencies were unwilling to act forcefully to counter the Russian actions.
“[Intelligence officials] had a list of things they could never get the signoffs on,” one intelligence official said. “The truth is, nobody wanted to piss off the Russians.”
The White House even hesitated to act on Russia after Wikileaks published emails from the DNC.
Officials outside of the White House blamed the National Security Council, which led to Ned Price’s, the former spokesman for the council, defense of the administration:
“The Obama administration was nothing but proactive in responding to Russian aggression in all of its forms, especially as Moscow became more brazen with and following its military moves against Ukraine beginning in 2014,” Price said, citing sanctions and increased American support to NATO as evidence of the former administration’s seriousness.
Others from the State Department and the Pentagon admitted to Politico that “they were aware of Russia’s aggressive cyberespionage and disinformation campaigns.” Russia attempting to interfere with the Ukrainian elections in May 2014 became the red flag to these officials.
But all of them felt that those in the White House and other “key agencies were unwilling to act forcefully to counter the Russian actions.”
One intelligence officials said that “nobody wanted to piss off the Russians.”
This included former Secretary of State John Kerry. Many intelligence officials presented several strategies to the Obama administration after a CIA officer received a severe beating outside of the U.S. embassy in Moscow.
These strategies included tailing Moscow operatives in the U.S. and shutting down two Russian dachas in New York and Maryland, which the administration finally did after the election:
“For quite some time, it was an active option. Secretary Kerry refused to consider it,” the former NSC official said. “We were getting pushback from the head of the agency being harassed. That was a constant frustration.”
Former Secretary of State John Kerry was overseas and unavailable for comment. But a former senior State Department official, speaking as a representative of Kerry, saw it differently. “Kerry agreed to shut down the dachas, but had not settled on the timing,” the official said.
One NSC official told Politico that Kerry did not want to be the one to break the news to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
However, many in the administration thought that closing of the dachas happened too late:
While some Obama White House officials privately concede that they, too, wish there had been a more forceful response, others stand by the decisions that were made.
“People at the working level don’t necessarily understand” the full scope of policy implications, one former White House official said.
Now, to the further frustration of some intelligence officers, there is little indication that, for all Trump’s bluster, he’ll be tougher on the Kremlin. In his first months in office, the president has signaled a willingness to work with Moscow on several fronts, and has pushed back hard against his own intelligence community’s assessment that Russia actively worked to elect him to the presidency.
It’s a bitter pill for many who see Trump’s election as the inevitable but avoidable outcome of years’ worth of counterintelligence failings against Russia.
“They were warned. They underestimated it until it was too late,” the current administration official said of the Obama White House and Russia, with a tinge of bitterness. “They just didn’t know how to deal with the bad guys.”
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