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Inside Obama’s secret deliberations on how to fight Russian election interference

June 23, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT
New revelations shed light on how former President Obama learned of Russia's efforts to tip the 2016 election in Donald Trump's favor and how his administration responded, including their debate over punishing Russian President Putin. Greg Miller of The Washington Post joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss his reporting.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: There are new revelations today about how President Obama learned of Russia’s efforts to tip the 2016 election in Donald Trump’s favor, and how his administration responded.

I spoke a short time ago to Greg Miller, national security correspondent for The Washington Post, who co-authored a lengthy investigation that the paper published today on this topic.

And I began by asking about the role Putin played.

GREG MILLER, The Washington Post: In early August, the CIA comes to the White House with a really remarkable piece of intelligence. It’s drawn on sourcing deep inside the Russian government.

It establishes that Putin himself is directing this operation, this election interference that is just unfolding in the United States. But it goes one step farther than that. And that’s what’s most interesting and extraordinary to me. It also captures Putin’s instructions on what the objectives of this operation are.

He identifies those objectives as denigrating, damaging Hillary Clinton, trying to help defeat her, and trying to help elect Donald Trump.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You also point out the levels of secrecy and precaution taken by the administration and the intelligence agencies in how this information gets to the president and even how people need to talk about it and share information.

GREG MILLER: Yes, it’s really remarkable, the precautions that the administration was taking with this information.

This intel, when it’s delivered to the White House, is brought by courier in an envelope with restricted markings on it. It’s eyes only, which means it can only be shared with the four people who are named on the envelope, President Obama and three of his senior aides.

They then they have, when they’re done reading this thing, put it back in the envelope, send it straight back to the CIA. It sets in motion a series of meetings, high-level meetings at the White House in the Situation Room. Only four senior officials are initially allowed to participate, although that circle begins to widen in the ensuing weeks.

And even there, there are things that I didn’t know about how the White House works that, apparently, in the Situation Room, there are video cameras that send feeds to other offices in the White House, so that others sitting at their desks can monitor what’s happening in that room. All those feeds were shut off for all of these discussions. The only time that had ever happened before was in the run-up to the bin Laden operation in 2011.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Let’s talk a little bit about what the Obama administration tried to do about it. They debated a menu of options, so to speak, for quite some time.

GREG MILLER: Right.

So, they debated and debated and debated. That went on for months after this bombshell intelligence report from the CIA. They got off to a fast. There are groups, NSC, interagency groups that are convening at the White House and kicking around ideas that are really aggressive, sector-wide economic sanctions that could put a dent in Russia’s economy, cyber-retaliation that could take portions of Russia’s power grid or other targets offline for short periods, even releasing embarrassing information on Putin, the way he was sort of accused of orchestrating embarrassing leaks about Hillary Clinton.

None of those end up surviving this debate process that goes well past the election deep into November and December.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You also highlight kind of bureaucratic hurdles. The Department of Homeland Security goes out to states that could be affected by this hacking and says, we would like to help, but the voting infrastructure in America is not deemed critical enough?

GREG MILLER: Yes, and this is one of those cases where the hyper-partisanship of our country now really works against our security interests in many ways.

So this is a case where the Obama administration is just trying to reach out to state officials, saying Russia’s attacking us, we are worried about what might happen on Election Day. We want to try to help make sure that all of our voting systems are secure. We can run scans. We can try to be of assistance here.

And Republicans in particular, state officials, resist this and see it as sort of an overreach, an attempted federal takeover of state authorities, and argue against it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You know, you point out that this is in the backdrop of a climate where there is an underlying assumption that Hillary Clinton is going to win, where Donald Trump has gone out and said the election is going to be rigged anyway.

And really not until after the election does the Obama administration start to put all these pieces together.

GREG MILLER: Yes, I don’t think you can overestimate the importance of that, because the assumption in the White House and as well as across media organizations like ours and across the country, frankly, there was just an assumption that we were looking at a Clinton — a coming Clinton administration.

So, inside the White House, their deliberations are, well, this is all important, but we have got to — we’re going to have time to deal with this after the election. In fact, if we don’t finish dealing with it, well, the Clinton administration certainly can.

And, also, they don’t want to take any action leading up to the election that would be perceived as interfering politically to help Hillary Clinton. They’re worried that that would contaminate her expected triumph.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Greg Miller, the reporting is fantastic, you and your colleagues, Adam Entous and Ellen Nakashima.

Thanks so much for joining us.

GREG MILLER: Thank you.

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