posted at 10:01 pm on December 27, 2016 by John Sexton
The Obama administration is almost ready to announce a response to the cyber-attack by Russia which many progressives blame for tipping to the election to Donald Trump. From the Washington Post:
The administration is still finalizing the details, which are also expected to include covert action that likely will involve cyber operations, the officials said. An announcement on the public elements of the response could come as early as this week.
The sanctions part of the package culminates weeks of debate in the White House about how to revise an executive order from last year meant to give the president authority to respond to cyberattacks from overseas, but which did not originally cover efforts to influence the electoral system.
This is coming months too late for Democrats who blame Russian interference for Hillary Clinton’s loss. Just last week Bill Clinton blamed his wife’s loss on Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the DCCC. “At the end, we had the Russians and the FBI deal. But she couldn’t prevail against that,” Clinton said. Hillary herself told a group of Democratic donors in New York that the hacking was “an attack against our country.”
Remember that the administration believed Russia was behind the attacks since the summer, months before the DNI released a statement in October officially blaming them for the hacks. The Obama administration chose not to respond for a several reasons. First, there was concern over how Russia might respond to a cyber-reprisal. Second, was a desire not to upset the ultimately failed negotiations Secretary of State Kerry was brokering with Russia over Syria. Finally, the White House was concerned about ensuring the legitimacy of the election. From CNN:
White House officials worried that publicly outing Russia would appear to be an effort to help Clinton, and the deliberations coincided with Trump’s complaints about a rigged election. Administration officials were sure Trump would lose in November and they were worried about giving him any reason to question the election results.
So it was certainty that Hillary would win which caused the White House to hold back. It probably seemed like a pretty safe bet at the time. Hillary was leading in national and swing state polls and there really was a great concern on the left that Trump would refuse to concede. So why rush some sort of cyber-attack you know will be interpreted as lending Hillary a hand right before the election? Better to wait until she has won and take the political question off the table. Obviously it didn’t work out that way.
Though Democrats have been eager to blame Clinton’s loss on FBI Director Comey, fewer have openly blamed President Obama. However, in an interview with the Atlantic, Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff criticized the administration for failing to act sooner and more forcefully:
I think the president should have come out earlier with attribution [for the cyber campaign]. I don’t accept the argument that [the administration] couldn’t come out earlier because they hadn’t established the evidence of attribution. The evidence was clear for a very long time before they were public about it. Senator [Dianne] Feinstein and I made public attribution [regarding Russia in September], before the intelligence community did, which is rare. I also think the process of sanctioning Russia should have begun far earlier, and we should have worked with our European allies to impose costs on Russia. That would have also telegraphed to the American people how serious this was.
By not doing more, by not saying more, the administration missed an important opportunity to help inform the American public about the serious nature of the meddling that was going on.
Now they did that for two reasons, one of which I find at least partly persuasive, even though I don’t agree with it. One I don’t find persuasive at all. They did that because they didn’t want to appear as putting their hand on the political scales. That excess of caution, though, meant that the American public [didn’t have] as full an appreciation of the significance of what the Russians were doing as they should have.
Obama has been frequently praised for his cool reaction in a crisis but in this case that coolness and his willingness to wait the situation out may have been costly to his party.