Could Obama Have Stopped the Election Hack?


Editor’s Note: This is the seventh installment of “The Brush Pass,” a column by Joshua Rovner (@joshrovner1) on intelligence, strategy, and statecraft.

In early August 2016, the CIA delivered an astonishing report to President Barack Obama. Russian President Vladimir Putin was directly involved in Moscow’s efforts to meddle in U.S. politics, and his goals had become more ambitious. Where earlier efforts — of which the administration had been aware for months — were designed to encourage doubt and disillusionment among American voters, now Russia was trying to get Donald Trump elected.

Obama believed it, but he didn’t act. A deliberative leader by nature, the president convened an intense but secret debate about the appropriate response. According to exhaustive reporting by The Washington Post, the administration split into two camps. One favored an aggressive and public effort to publicize and punish Russian activities. This would discourage Russia from continuing its meddling and educate U.S. voters, who deserved to be fully informed before heading to the polls.

The other side counseled caution. It was unclear that going public would deter Russia, and publicizing Russian successes at hacking American political parties might add fuel to Trump’s claims that the election was somehow rigged. And these administration officials assumed that Hillary Clinton would win anyway, so there would be plenty of time to deal with Russia later.

The internal divisions highlighted what would become an impossible dilemma for the president, one that continues to loom over U.S. politics: Should Obama have taken a strong public stand against Russia before the election, especially after U.S. intelligence agencies showed him damning evidence of Moscow’s meddling? Some fault him for not doing so, but the criticism is misguided. Going public was unlikely to change Russian behavior. And using intelligence to make the case would have risked politicization by pulling the intelligence community into a deeply divisive political campaign.

Ultimately, Obama chose caution that summer. Senior intelligence leaders warned their Russian counterparts to “knock it off,” and in September the president privately passed the same message to Putin. But the administration did not go public until early October, just a few weeks before the election, when the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security issued a joint statement about Russian malfeasance.

Critics said this was too little and much too late. Even some administration officials agreed. Former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul regretted that the “punishment didn’t fit the crime.” One anonymous official who took part in the internal debate was especially contrite: “I feel like we sort of choked.”

These post-hoc criticisms rest on a theory of coercion: Publicizing Russian activities and enacting punitive measures would force it to stop interfering in U.S. politics. Russian leaders would think twice about stealing and releasing Americans’ emails if they believed they would pay a price.

While doing more might have felt good, there is little reason to believe it would have affected Russian behavior. The United States already had Russia under sanctions for annexing Crimea in 2014. But those penalties, and repeated public denunciations of Moscow’s actions, had little coercive effect. Moscow had already proven its willingness to suffer economic hardship, and it is unlikely the prospect of more harm would have convinced it to put its espionage and influence campaign on hold.

The problem went beyond deterring future Russian mischief. The administration also had to compel Russia to stop the existing campaign. Strategists have long argued that compellence is harder than deterrence, in part because the targets of compellence must visibly (and embarrassingly) change course, while the targets of deterrence don’t have to do anything. The Obama administration might have hoped that cumulative costs would have deterred Russia over the long term, but forcing it to take meaningful action before the election was always a long shot.

In any case, the damage was already done by the time the administration began its internal debate. Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee months before, and Wikileaks had already published many of the stolen emails. This fed Trump’s campaign narrative that the untrustworthy Democrats had somehow manipulated the primary process. Clinton’s private email server, which otherwise might have appeared mundane, now seemed unforgivable.

After the election, the outgoing administration levied new sanctions against Russia, and Congress later overwhelmingly voted those sanctions into law. None of this has reduced Russian enthusiasm for political influence operations. According to multiple reports, Russia has involved itself repeatedly in European elections, and U.S. officials are concerned it will meddle in the coming midterms as well.

Even if there was no prospect of coercing Russia, there still may have been a reason for the administration to come out publicly. Some believed voters needed a full picture of Russian malfeasance to make an informed judgment on Election Day. As one former official told the Senate Intelligence Committee, the administration “needed to be more transparent with the American public about what it knew and the threat it clearly posed to the election.” Had the public known Russian intelligence services were choreographing the email leaks, perhaps they would have been more wary. This argument is a novel twist on a familiar theory of democracy: that the public occasionally needs access to secret intelligence in order to hold elected leaders accountable. The twist is that here, it needed access to secret intelligence to elect them.

Declassifying secret intelligence in the midst of a campaign would have risked drawing intelligence services further into partisan politics, threatening their institutional independence. Politicians have often tried to manipulate intelligence to make it serve their parochial purposes. While intelligence officials have sought to insulate their agencies from politics, they have frequently faced pressure to be more open about their activities and their assessment of foreign threats. Unsurprisingly, when intelligence leaders are expected to comment publicly on controversial issues, policymakers have reason to make sure that intelligence statements are politically convenient. This has led to notorious cases of politicization, including the intelligence-policy disaster before the Iraq war.

The problem was particularly acute during the 2016 campaign because of Trump’s claim that the process was rigged. Critics might have accused the White House of enlisting intelligence to oversell the case against Moscow, turning the machinery of the so-called “deep state” against its political rivals. A forceful Obama administration claim, backed by secret intelligence, that Russia was working on Trump’s behalf would likely have fueled this argument. What better way to prove to cynical voters that the Washington establishment was out to get him? This concern animated the White House deliberations, as former Vice President Joe Biden recently confirmed.

Even setting aside the concern about politicizing intelligence, it’s not clear that going public would have mattered. There was no shortage of public reporting on Russian involvement in the email hacking. Numerous private-sector analyses pointed the finger at Moscow, and media coverage followed suit. Conscientious voters had plenty of opportunity to weigh their decision with this evidence in mind.

Arguments about policy blunders rely on counterfactual questions. In this case, the alternative history is that a stronger White House stand in summer 2016 would have changed voter perceptions in a few key swing states. It’s true that intelligence services are persuasive public relations vehicles because they control secrets, and people tend to overvalue secret information. Perhaps voters would have been more sympathetic to Clinton if they believed her campaign was under attack from abroad, while those inclined to trust Trump might have soured on him. And maybe these shifts would have changed the outcome, given very close electoral margins.

This is plausible, though it is hard to estimate the effects of any single event in the most bizarre election in modern American history. Trump emerged from scandals — accusations of racism, corruption, and sexual assault — that would have buried past politicians. In addition, there is not much evidence that voter attitudes about Trump changed after the intelligence community finally went public about Russia in early October.

But even if the counterfactual is correct, this doesn’t mean the Obama administration should have taken a strong public position in the name of informing the electorate. Doing so would have meant revealing classified intelligence to influence voter beliefs in an election year. This would have set a terrible precedent, making a mockery of the idea of an apolitical intelligence community and undermining efforts to keep intelligence out of the policy fray. And it would have increased the likelihood of future leaders turning to intelligence for all the wrong reasons.

Indeed, those who wish Obama had done more should consider current events. Last week, Trump’s congressional allies released classified information about the process by which the FBI obtained a warrant against a former Trump campaign advisor. Current and former intelligence officials, along with congressional Democrats, blasted the decision as reckless and dangerous. Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, warned that using intelligence for political purposes means that “sources of information that the agencies rely upon may dry up, since they can no longer count on secrecy when the political winds are blowing.”

To be clear, Obama’s dilemma in 2016 was not quite the same as Trump’s today. Obama’s choice was about releasing intelligence conclusions, while Trump’s was about the details of the intelligence process. But in both cases, the temptation to go public was powerful, given the political stakes. Selective declassification opens the door to politicization, even if the reasons are justifiable, because it gives future politicians license to abuse intelligence for their own ends. Obama seemed to understand this risk, and his reluctance to go public was admirable. Those concerned about the integrity of the intelligence community should view his actions as a milestone, not a mistake.


Joshua Rovner is Associate Professor in the School of International Service at American University. He is the author of Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence (Cornell, 2011), and writes widely about intelligence and strategy.  

Image: White House/Pete Souza

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