“I feel like we sort of choked.” That is the killer quote in an extraordinary Washington Post investigation into how Barack Obama responded to intelligence last year that Russia was running a sophisticated influence operation against the 2016 elections.
It’s attributed to a former senior Obama administration official, but it captures the view of many Democrats and now many opportunistic Republicans. President Donald Trump got in on the action on Monday morning when he tweeted: “The real story is that President Obama did NOTHING after being informed in August about Russian meddling.”
It’s tempting to grant Trump this point, despite Trump’s own insistence during his campaign that there was no evidence Russia meddled in the election at all. Obama was the commander-in-chief when Moscow hatched this operation. It was his duty to defend our election.
But this isn’t entirely fair. To start, by the time the CIA had gathered the intelligence in August about how President Vladimir Putin himself was trying to elect Trump over Hillary Clinton, the servers of the Democratic National Committee and other leading Democrats were already breached. Obama’s government did inform state election officials about the prospect of hacking of voter rolls and helped make them more resilient. In the end, the Russians spread fake news and distributed the messages they hacked. They had the good fortune of a Republican candidate willing to amplify the pilfered emails. But there is no evidence that Russia changed the vote tallies or took voters off the registration rolls.
What’s more, Trump himself had in the final weeks of the election suggested the vote itself would be rigged. Had Obama been more public in warning about the Russian influence operation, he would risk undermining the legitimacy of the election in the eyes of Trump’s supporters, essentially aiding Russia’s plan to undermine it before any votes were cast.
Rather than asking why Obama didn’t do more to stop Russian meddling, the better question is why Putin thought he could get away with this interference in the first place. In every respect, the U.S. is more powerful than Russia. It has a much larger economy. Its military is superior. Its cyber capabilities are greater. Its diplomatic position is stronger. So why did Putin believe he could treat America like it was Estonia?
The answer is that Obama spent the first six years of his presidency turning a blind eye to Russian aggression. In his first term, Obama pursued a policy of “reset” with Moscow, even though he took office only five months after Russia had annexed two Georgian provinces in the summer of 2008. In the 2012 election, Obama mocked his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, for saying Russia posed a significant threat to U.S. interests. Throughout his presidency, Obama’s administration failed to respond to Russian cheating on arms-control agreements. His diplomacy to reach an agreement to temporarily suspend progress on Iran’s nuclear program made the U.S. reliant on Russian cooperation for Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement.
In the shadows, Russian spies targeted Americans abroad. As I reported in 2011 for the Washington Times, Russia’s intelligence services had stepped up this campaign of harassment during the reset. This included breaking into the homes of NGO workers and diplomats. In one case, an official with the National Democratic Institute was framed in the Russian press on false rape charges. In 2013, when the Obama administration appointed Michael McFaul to be his ambassador in Moscow, the harassment got worse. McFaul complained he was tailed by cameramen from the state-owned media every time he left the Embassy for an appointment. He asked on Twitter how the network seemed to always know his private schedule.
The Washington Post reported that these incidents continued throughout the Obama administration. In June 2016, a CIA officer in Moscow was tackled and thrown to the ground by a uniformed guard with Russia’s FSB, the successor agency of the KGB.
In 2011, the former Republican chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Christopher “Kit” Bond, told me: “It’s not the intelligence committee that fails to understand the problem. It’s the Obama administration.”
This lax approach to Russia was captured in the memoir of Obama’s former defense secretary, Robert Gates. He wrote that Obama at first was angry at his FBI director, Robert Mueller, and his CIA director, Leon Panetta, for recommending the arrest in 2010 of a network of illegal Russian sleeper agents the FBI had been tracking for years.
“The president seemed as angry at Mueller for wanting to arrest the illegals and at Panetta for wanting to exfiltrate the source from Moscow as he was at the Russians,” Gates wrote. He quoted Obama as saying: “Just as we’re getting on track with the Russians, this? This is a throwback to the Cold War. This is right out of John le Carré. We put START, Iran, the whole relationship with Russia at risk for this kind of thing?” Gates recounts that the vice president wanted to ignore the entire issue because it threatened to disrupt an upcoming visit from Russia’s president at the time, Dmitry Medvedev.
After some more convincing, Obama went along with a plan to kick the illegal spies out of the country in exchange for some Americans. But the insight into the thinking inside his Oval Office is telling.
Eventually, Obama responded to Russian aggression after its stealth invasion of Ukraine in 2014. He worked closely with European allies to impose sanctions on Russia for their violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. But he never agreed to sell the Ukrainians defensive weapons. In the final years of his presidency, as Wired magazine has recently reported, the Russians engaged in bold cyberattacks against Ukraine’s electric grid. So far, the U.S. has not responded openly to that either.
Even after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Obama policy toward Russian aggression was inconsistent. As Foreign Policy magazine reported in May, Obama’s State Department slow-rolled a proposal from the U.S. Mission to the United Nations to lay out a set of options to punish Russia’s client Syria for its use of chlorine bombs against its own citizens in 2014. Russia and the U.S. forged the agreement in 2013 to remove chemical weapons from the country. In the same year, the Obama administration did nothing to deter Russia from establishing air bases inside Syria, preferring instead to support John Kerry’s fruitless efforts to reach a cease-fire agreement with Russia in Syria. That inaction now haunts the U.S. as Russia declared its own no-fly zone this month in Syria, after U.S. forces shot down a Syrian jet.
All of this is the context of Putin’s decision to boldly interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections. Perhaps Putin would have authorized the operation even if Obama had responded more robustly to Russia’s earlier dirty tricks and foreign adventures. But it’s easy to understand why Putin would believe he had a free shot. Russia probed American resolve for years.
When Obama finally did respond, it was too late to save Ukraine and too late to protect our election.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist.