Why Did the Obama Administration ‘Stand Down’ During 2016 Russian Hacking?
It's still a head-scratcher. But we need to know the answers.
There is a two-and-a-half-year-old story constantly simmering in the background of the American consciousness. It peeks out every now and then, as it did last week with Trump’s removal of Obama’s 2012 “Presidential Policy Directive 20,” that had reset the rules for response to cyberattacks on the US.
The deeper story is this: The deliberate refusal to act by the Obama administration to Russian hacking and cyber-interference in the 2016 election. Its incredibly, irresponsibly weak response raises serious questions. But first, some history:
The “Stand-Down” Order is Given
The recently-published book: Russian Roulette, The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump, contains the following damning paragraph:
At his morning staff meeting, Daniel [Michael Daniel – former White House Coordinator of Cybersecurity] matter-of-factly said to his team that it had to stop work on options to counter the Russian attack: “We’ve been told to stand down.” Daniel Prieto, one of Daniel’s top deputies, recalled, “I was incredulous and in disbelief. It took me a moment to process. In my head I was like, ‘Did I hear that correctly?’” Then Prieto spoke up, asking, “Why the hell are we standing down? Michael, can you help us understand?” Daniel informed them that the orders came from both Rice and Monaco. They were concerned that if the options were to leak, it would force Obama to act. “They didn’t want to box the president in,” Prieto subsequently said.
This passage was attacked by some as unproven, but Daniel corroborated it himself in his June 20, 2018 testimony before a Senate committee investigating the Russian interference. Russian Roulette co-author Michael Isikoff, chief investigative reporter for Yahoo News noted Daniel’s confirmation in a Yahoo News article in June.
The Stand-Down Order Raises Serious Questions
Question #1: Why would the Obama administration have told the cyber-security services to “stand down”?
Question #2: If the Obama people assumed that “the next administration” would take care of the problem (as they claimed in Senate testimony), was that partly because they assumed it would be a Clinton administration?
Question #3: Is there a chance they may have been led to believe that whatever Russian interference would come, it might be in Clinton’s favor?
Question #4: If the Obama group ordered the stand-down, and assumed it could be fixed in a later administration, why are Democrats switching the narrative to a collusion accusation, and attacking Trump instead?
Question #5: Is it possible the whole thing blew up in their face and part of their reaction is a classic denial maneuver — i.e., they might blame their inaction on political opponents to deflect blame from themselves and make the Trump campaign look bad?
How Do Former Obama Officials Explain This?
Daniel and former Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland claimed in recorded testimony that even though Daniel’s cybersecurity team had prepared some strong cyber-responses, they could not implement them due to a lack of coordination and centralized information.
However, Anthony Ferrante, another team member who was coordinating the US response to the hacking, gave 60 Minutes a much different explanation.
The Obama administration did not want to appear to be biased. We had a presidential candidate who was — campaigning on the fact that the election was rigged and he wasn’t certain he was going to get a fair shot at the presidency. …It was a very sensitive issue.
A host of other factors surfaced during the Senate hearings in June. Daniels and Nuland both admitted they knew a weak response would only encourage Putin to do more. They both stated the consensus was that the Russians were trying to weaken American confidence in our electoral system and not necessarily to throw the election.
They believed that the goal of the Russians was to influence American consciousness so that, once Hillary won, she would come in as a weakened president. America would be much more distrustful of the political process and be in disarray.
Obama Had Political Concerns About Countering Russia
From their testimony and others, President Obama also wanted to influence the American consciousness. The “we’ll deal with it after the election” mentality is the same as he personally telegraphed to then-Russian-president Medvedev in his famous open-mic incident of 2012.
The “Stand Down” order brings back harrowing memories of the Benghazi attack of September 11, 2012. Remember, Obama had been stating that Al Qaeda was defeated as he headed into the 2012 presidential elections. Many have surmised that the attempt at deflection of the Benghazi story, with its “video” scapegoat and multiple other disinformation efforts were attempts to manipulate the American consciousness prior to the 2012 election.
In other words, Obama played politics as a game of manipulating public perceptions. That seemed to extend to the cyber-conflict with the Russians in 2016. That’s the game Putin was playing as well. Obama stood down, ostensibly for political reasons. Evidently his team felt Russia could be handled “by the next administration.”
The Narrative Changed When the Election Didn’t Go His Way
Ironically, Trump won that election, not Hillary Clinton. Since then the narrative has not been the unconscionable attempt to manipulate the American consciousness — by Putin or by Obama — with regard to the Russian hacking. The story has instead been focused on a long hunt to try and find some sort of “collusion” with Russia by Trump. Every week the press goes chasing after a new bright and shiny object to keep in the forefront of the news cycle (and of the American consciousness). And the real story goes mostly unreported.
As to the threat of foreign intrusion, much more forceful responses are needed. Both Daniels and Nuland admitted such in their Senate testimony. And it appears that Trump’s removal of Presidential Policy Directive 20 is a huge first step. Dustin Volz, in The Wall Street Journal cited one Trump official, who called the decision “an offensive step forward,” aimed at deterring foreign influence in US matters and meeting such threats with “more forceful responses.”
The Questions Must Still Be Answered
The five questions above, however, need to be answered. Especially questions 3, 4 and 5.