Facing a Russian Cyber Attack, Obama Officials Struggled To Respond
In August 2016, then CIA director John Brennan had a scheduled phone call with Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service, a successor agency to the KGB. The two regularly discussed counterterrorism and planned to speak about the situation in Syria.
But Brennan said he confronted Bortnikov that day on a separate, urgent issue: mounting evidence of Russian interference in the upcoming presidential election. By then, media outlets were reporting on growing consensus that Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee.
“I told him that if they were doing this, this would be a grave mistake,” Brennan recalled. “That it was going to roil the relations between the United States and Russia for many years to come. That all Americans would be outraged over it, even if the Russians were trying to advance the prospects of candidates that some Americans were in favor of, because the American people take very seriously the importance of the integrity and the freedom of our election system.”
Bortnikov denied the accusation, according to Brennan, but agreed to pass the message to Vladimir Putin. While Brennan would typically hear back within an hour anytime he asked Bortnikov to relay a message to Putin, he said he never heard back on the Russian president’s reaction.
The Obama administration was still months away from officially blaming Putin for the cyberattacks. In interviews with FRONTLINE for the documentary Putin’s Revenge, Brennan and other top Obama administration intelligence officials described a delicate balancing act where they debated how action they might take in response to the Russian threat would be interpreted amid a hyperpartisan political environment.
The officials said they were concerned that attempts by a Democratic administration to alert the public to Russia’s meddling would be misconstrued as interference in support of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. At the same time, they worried about taking actions that could provoke Russian retaliation prior to the election.
“We were very mindful of the responsibilities to do everything possible to prevent the Russians from being successful in what they were trying to do, but at the same time, not to do anything that is even going to call further into question the integrity of the election,” said Brennan. “Because I could view some scenarios where there would be this escalating concern, and then people would start to really wonder whether or not their vote was going to count.”
Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, whose responsibilities included cyber risks to state election systems, expressed similar worry.
“We were very concerned that we would be perceived as taking sides,” said Johnson. “We were very concerned that we would be playing into Mr. Trump’s narrative that the election was going to be rigged.”
Brennan said it was not unusual for Russia to gather intelligence on the United States, but by releasing hacked data to embarrass its targets, it had “weaponized” that information. Something so disruptive, he said, required a “head nod” from Putin.
“The exploitation of the cyber environment gave us real concern that the Russians could be up to things that we hadn’t seen before, and we didn’t know what they were going to try to do,” he said.
In early August, hours before Brennan briefed Obama, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Deputy National Security Adviser Avril Haines, and the president’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, on the interference, he sent over a short “cryptic” note to ensure that the group understood the gravity of the situation.
“The president was very concerned about what the Russians were doing,” he said. “The president was very focused on what it is we needed to do in order to uncover and to stop them from doing it. But the president also, I think, was rightly concerned about doing something in the middle of a presidential election season to thwart the Russians.”
Counterintelligence information was kept to a tight circle as Brennan went on to brief top leadership in Congress, known informally as the “Gang of Eight.” Obama officials sought a bipartisan statement about the interference, but amid a hyperpartisan political climate, some described resistance from Congress.
“In those briefings of Congress, some of the individuals expressed concern that this was motivated by partisan interests on the part of the administration,” Brennan said. “And I took offense to that, and told them that this is an intelligence assessment. This is an intelligence matter. And I wanted to make sure that they were informed because the Gang of Eight responsibilities required them to take this seriously.”
That same month, Johnson reached out to state officials about securing voting systems through a designation that would have granted them priority to receive federal cybersecurity assistance.
“We saw [Russian] efforts at scanning and probing around various state election systems,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t the key swing states, it was a list that seemed rather haphazard. And we didn’t know where it was going. We didn’t know how long the list was going to get by Election Day.”
But officials in some states resisted, he said, deeming it a federal takeover of the election. Officials have since concluded that election systems in at least 21 states were targeted by hackers ahead of the 2016 election, though there is no evidence that voter data was manipulated.
As the administration continued to weigh its options, some in Congress began to grow inpatient. On Sept. 22, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) the top Democrats on the Senate and House intelligence committees, released their own statement calling on Putin to halt Russian interference.
“We were unsuccessful in persuading the administration to speak out at the time,” Schiff told FRONTLINE, adding that the White House should have discussed placing sanctions on Russia prior to the election. “We took the extraordinary step of speaking out ourselves, of making our own attribution, which doesn’t carry the same weight, obviously, as if the president were doing it.”
Less than a week later, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) signed a letter warning of “malefactors” seeking to use cyberattacks to disrupt the elections. But the letter did not mention Russia and it warned that lawmakers “would oppose any effort by the federal government to exercise any degree of control over the states’ administration of elections.”
On Oct. 7, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper joined Johnson in issuing a statement that, without naming Putin, announced Russian interference in state voting systems. But within half an hour of the statement’s release, an “Access Hollywood” video featuring crude remarks from Trump about women became public, dominating news coverage and burying the announcement from Clapper and Johnson. Later that evening, WikiLeaks published its first batch of hacked emails from Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.
Though Clapper said he was disappointed that the press release did not receive more attention, he said it had been crucial to get the word out.
“If the election, for whatever reason and whatever manner, were to go south, and then afterwards it was learned that we knew about what the Russians were doing, or had some pretty good insight into what they were doing, and we didn’t say anything about it before the election, there would really be hell to pay,” said Clapper.
The administration had also considered a cyber response, according to Brennan, but officials didn’t want to risk a cyber war so close to the vote.
“What would the Russians have done to counter that?” he said. “And if they were going to counter it, how that could have further interfered in the election, or undermine the credibility?”
In the end, the Obama administration waited until after the election to retaliate. In December, the president ordered the expulsion of 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives from the United States and sanctions on Russian intelligence services. The following month, the intelligence community released a declassified report concluding that Putin had ordered “an influence campaign” designed to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”
Clapper said he considered those actions as just a first step.
“One of the reasons why President Obama tasked us to do our assessment, and to have it out before the end of his term, was he wanted to be able to hand that over to not only the Congress, but to the next administration, as a basis for further action,” he said.
Under pressure from Congress, Trump signed a law in August that would implement sanctions on Russia for meddling in the election. The law would sanction individuals that engage in significant business with Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors. But the administration missed its Oct 1. deadline to implement the sanctions and only at the end of October did it send Congress a list of Russia-connected entities to help determine sanctions.
Some former intelligence officials expressed worry about whether the president is ready to confront Moscow. Johnson said that the current administration has not publicly expressed sufficient alarm about the election interference.
“This whole episode is a reflection of how the global cyber threat is evolving,” he said. “It’s now up to this president to defend all these networks, all these systems, and all these people from another cyber attack in the future … My concern is that people now in power, people in a position to do something about what happened, need to be motivated to do so.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of the House Minority Leader. She is Nancy Pelosi, not Pelose.