Obama’s Response to Russia’s Hack: An Emphasis on America’s More Generalized Vulnerability

President Obama’s comments Friday about the Russian hack of the DNC were a rare occasion where I liked one of his speeches far more than more partisan Democrats.

I think Democrats were disappointed because Obama declined to promise escalation. The press set Obama up, twice (first Josh Lederman and then Martha Raddatz), with questions inviting him to attack Putin directly. Similarly, a number of reporters asked questions that betrayed an expectation for a big showy response. Rather than providing that, Obama did several things:

  • Distinguish the integrity of the process of voting from our larger political discourse
  • Blame our political discourse (and the press) as much as Putin
  • Insist on a measured response to Putin

Distinguish the integrity of the process of voting from our larger political discourse

From the very start, Obama distinguished between politics and the integrity of our election system.

I think it is very important for us to distinguish between the politics of the election and the need for us, as a country, both from a national security perspective but also in terms of the integrity of our election system and our democracy, to make sure that we don’t create a political football here.

This gets to a point that most people are very sloppy about when they claim Putin “tampered” with the election. Throughout this election, the press has at times either deliberately or incompetently conflated the theft and release of emails (which the intelligence community unanimously agrees was done by Putin) with the hacking of voting-related servers (reportedly done by “Russians,” but not necessarily the Russian state, which is probably why the October 7 IC statement pointedly declined to attribute those hacks to Russia).

Obama, after having laid out how the IC provided the press and voters with a way to account for the importance of the Russian hack on the election, then returns to what he says was a successful effort to ensure Russia didn’t hack the actual vote counting.

What I was concerned about, in particular, was making sure that that wasn’t compounded by potential hacking that could hamper vote counting, affect the actual election process itself.

And so in early September, when I saw President Putin in China, I felt that the most effective way to ensure that that didn’t happen was to talk to him directly and tell him to cut it out, and there were going to be some serious consequences if he didn’t. And, in fact, we did not see further tampering of the election process.

This is consistent with the anonymous statement the White House released over Thanksgiving weekend, which the press seems unaware of. In it, the White House emphasized that it was aware of no malicious election-related tampering, while admitting they had no idea whether Russia had ever planned any in the first place.

Blame our political discourse (and the press) as much as Putin

By far the most important part of Obama’s comments, I think, were his comments about why he believed this to be the right approach.

Obama described the October 7 DHS/ODNI statement as an effort to inform all voters of the hack and leak (and high level involvement in it), without trying to tip the scale politically.

And at that time, we did not attribute motives or any interpretations of why they had done so. We didn’t discuss what the effects of it might be. We simply let people know — the public know, just as we had let members of Congress know — that this had happened.

And as a consequence, all of you wrote a lot of stories about both what had happened, and then you interpreted why that might have happened and what effect it was going to have on the election outcomes. We did not. And the reason we did not was because in this hyper-partisan atmosphere, at a time when my primary concern was making sure that the integrity of the election process was not in any way damaged, at a time when anything that was said by me or anybody in the White House would immediately be seen through a partisan lens, I wanted to make sure that everybody understood we were playing this thing straight — that we weren’t trying to advantage one side or another, but what we were trying to do was let people know that this had taken place, and so if you started seeing effects on the election, if you were trying to measure why this was happening and how you should consume the information that was being leaked, that you might want to take this into account.

And that’s exactly how we should have handled it.

Again, I get why Democrats are furious about this passage: they wanted and still want the IC to attack Trump for benefitting from the Russian hack. Or at the very least, they want to legitimize their plan to delegitimize Trump by using his Russian ties with Obama endorsement. From a partisan view, I get that. But I also very much agree with Obama’s larger point: if Russia’s simple hack decided the election, it’s as much a statement about how sick our democracy is, across the board, as it is a big win for Putin.

To lead into that point, Obama points out how many of the people in the room — how the press — obsessed about every single new leak, rather than focusing on the issues that mattered to the election.

[W]e allowed you and the American public to make an assessment as to how to weigh that going into the election.

And the truth is, is that there was nobody here who didn’t have some sense of what kind of effect it might have. I’m finding it a little curious that everybody is suddenly acting surprised that this looked like it was disadvantaging Hillary Clinton because you guys wrote about it every day. Every single leak. About every little juicy tidbit of political gossip — including John Podesta’s risotto recipe. This was an obsession that dominated the news coverage.

So I do think it’s worth us reflecting how it is that a presidential election of such importance, of such moment, with so many big issues at stake and such a contrast between the candidates, came to be dominated by a bunch of these leaks. What is it about our political system that made us vulnerable to these kinds of potential manipulations — which, as I’ve said publicly before, were not particularly sophisticated.

This was not some elaborate, complicated espionage scheme. They hacked into some Democratic Party emails that contained pretty routine stuff, some of it embarrassing or uncomfortable, because I suspect that if any of us got our emails hacked into, there might be some things that we wouldn’t want suddenly appearing on the front page of a newspaper or a telecast, even if there wasn’t anything particularly illegal or controversial about it. And then it just took off.

And that concerns me.

He returns to that more generally, with one of the most important lines of the presser. “Our vulnerability to Russia or any other foreign power is directly related to how divided, partisan, dysfunctional our political process is.”

The more [the review of the hack] can be nonpartisan, the better served the American people are going to be, which is why I made the point earlier — and I’m going to keep on repeating this point: Our vulnerability to Russia or any other foreign power is directly related to how divided, partisan, dysfunctional our political process is. That’s the thing that makes us vulnerable.

If fake news that’s being released by some foreign government is almost identical to reports that are being issued through partisan news venues, then it’s not surprising that that foreign propaganda will have a greater effect, because it doesn’t seem that far-fetched compared to some of the other stuff that folks are hearing from domestic propagandists.

To the extent that our political dialogue is such where everything is under suspicion, everybody is corrupt and everybody is doing things for partisan reasons, and all of our institutions are full of malevolent actors — if that’s the storyline that’s being put out there by whatever party is out of power, then when a foreign government introduces that same argument with facts that are made up, voters who have been listening to that stuff for years, who have been getting that stuff every day from talk radio or other venues, they’re going to believe it.

So if we want to really reduce foreign influence on our elections, then we better think about how to make sure that our political process, our political dialogue is stronger than it’s been.

Now, the Democrats who have celebrated hopey changey Obama have, over the years, recognized that his effort to be bipartisan squandered his opportunity, in 2009, to really set up a structure that would make us more resilient. It is, admittedly, infuriating that in his last presser Obama still endorses bipartisanship when the last 8 years (and events rolling out in North Carolina even as he was speaking) prove that the GOP will not play that game unless forced to.

So I get the anger here.

But, it is also true that our democracy was fragile well before Vladimir Putin decided he was going to fuck around. Even if Putin hadn’t hacked John Podesta, the way in which the email investigation rolled out accomplished the same objective. (Indeed, at one point I wondered whether Putin wasn’t jealous of Comey for having a much bigger effect on the election). Even if some Russians didn’t put out fake news, others were still going to do that, playing to the algorithmically enhanced biases of Trump voters. Even without Putin hacking voting machines, we can be certain that in places like Wisconsin and North Carolina the vote had already been hacked by Republicans suppressing Democratic vote.

The effect Putin was seeking was happening, happened, anyway, even without his involvement. That doesn’t excuse his involvement, but it does say that if we nuked Putin off the face of this earth tomorrow, our democracy would remain just as fragile as it was with Putin playing in it during this election.

So Obama is right about our vulnerability, though I think he really hasn’t offered a way to fix it. That’s what we all need to figure out going forward. But I can assure you: focusing exclusively on Russia, as if that is the problem and not the underlying fragility, is not going to fix it.

Insist on a measured response to Putin

Which leads us to his comments on a response. In spite of repeated efforts to get him to say “Vlad Putin is a big fat dick who personally elected Donald Trump,” Obama refused (though that didn’t stop some papers from adopting headings suggesting he had). Rather, Obama used the language used in the October 7 statement, saying the hacks were approved by the highest levels of the Russian government, which necessarily means Putin authorized them.

We have said, and I will confirm, that this happened at the highest levels of the Russian government. And I will let you make that determination as to whether there are high-level Russian officials who go off rogue and decide to tamper with the U.S. election process without Vladimir Putin knowing about it.

Q So I wouldn’t be wrong in saying the President thinks Vladimir Putin authorized the hack?

THE PRESIDENT: Martha, I’ve given you what I’m going to give you.

Similarly, Obama refused to respond to journalists’ invitation to announce some big retaliation.

I know that there have been folks out there who suggest somehow that if we went out there and made big announcements, and thumped our chests about a bunch of stuff, that somehow that would potentially spook the Russians. But keep in mind that we already have enormous numbers of sanctions against the Russians. The relationship between us and Russia has deteriorated, sadly, significantly over the last several years. And so how we approach an appropriate response that increases costs for them for behavior like this in the future, but does not create problems for us, is something that’s worth taking the time to think through and figure out.

I’m going to return to this to discuss a detail no one seems to get about Obama’s choices right now. But for the moment, note his emphasis on a response that increases costs for such hacks that do “not create problems for us.”

Unsurprisingly (and, given America’s own aggressive cyberattacks, possibly unrealistically), Obama says he is most seeking norm-setting.

What we’ve also tried to do is to start creating some international norms about this to prevent some sort of cyber arms race, because we obviously have offensive capabilities as well as defensive capabilities. And my approach is not a situation in which everybody is worse off because folks are constantly attacking each other back and forth, but putting some guardrails around the behavior of nation-states, including our adversaries, just so that they understand that whatever they do to us we can potentially do to them.

Obama’s approach is “not a situation in which everybody is worse off because folks are constantly attacking each other back and forth.” Does that suggest the US has already been hacking Russia? Why do we never consider whether Putin was retaliating against us? Who started this cyberwar, anyway?

Funny how Americans assume the answer must be Putin.

In any case, we do need norms about this stuff, but that likely would require some honestly about what, if anything, is different about cyber election tampering than all the election tampering Russia and the US have engaged in for decades — which is a point Chilean Ariel Dorfman makes after pointing out the irony of CIA “crying foul because its tactics have been imitated by a powerful international rival.”

Even assuming we’ll never learn the full extent of America’s own recent tampering, that’s likely to be something that Obama is thinking about as journalists and Democrats wail that he isn’t taking a more aggressive stance.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

10 replies
  1. jo6pac says:

    Now, the Democrats who have celebrated hopey changey Obama have, over the years, recognized that his effort to be bipartisan squandered his opportunity, in 2009, to really set up a structure that would make us more resilient.

    You’re giving him way to much credit, this whole thingy played out just the way he and his puppet masters wanted. It was first it was we need to work together. Why when demodogs controlled both houses and could have twisted blue dogs arms to get what he said he wanted. Then because demodogs run campaigns to lose and both house went to repugs and now obomber was allowed to say they won’t help with my hopism but still was able to get enough votes for aca (corp. healthcare welfare) and bail out the banksters around the world. Amerikas citizens received 0. The way I see it this all came together nicely for him and family. The new shiny lieberry built on public land and lots speeches paying $$$$$$$$$$$$ for 1hr of his time then off for round of golf. The new boss will be more of the same only it’s in your face instead being done behind the curtains of lies.

    Time to get firewood, lunch and watch some football.

  2. Splashoil says:

    Glad to hear the Coast Guard is on board with the rest of the IC re evil Putin!  Last time they had a unanimous conclusion was wrt WMDZ in Iraq.  Maybe there was some findings on Libya and Syria too.  It’s a theater of the absurd.  Of course our hands are clean so nothing to do but beat the drums!

  3. HJL says:

    One thing I keep wondering about is three letters——NSA they are the computer guys not the CIA they are the lying group. Number two if it was a hack they would know—–Snowden i.e., but a hack no way. Craig Murray from Scotland has repeated stated he received the leak material from a person in VA and passed to Wikileaks

  4. wayoutwest says:

    This is a precious moment watching Barry slipping and sliding off his high lying horse trying to bring the fanatics in the media and elsewhere back to reality. He couldn’t cajole, threaten or beg Trump to put on their hanging rope like a new silk tie and he has nothing to back up a real attack on Putin. The big lie can’t be acknowledged but the allusion to someone other than Putin in the Kremlin being the culprit is pretty close.

    It’s better for everyone that this regime ceases to exist ending with a whimper rather than a bang.

  5. bevin says:

    Pepe Escobar puts it like this:

    “t’s by now crystal clear the coup-in-progress against Donald Trump is a made in USA regime change op using standard hybrid war techniques such as manipulation of public opinion by mainstream media.” The coup has been articulated by the usual suspects, from neocons to neoliberalcons, “humanitarian” imperialists included, with a special starring role for their pet agency, the CIA, which during the Bush-Obama continuum further specialized in fake “intelligence”. https://sputniknews.com/columnists/201612181048708675-russophobia-sinophobia/

    There is no evidence at all that Putin or the Russian government had anything to do with leaking the DNC emails. None. Zilch. Nada. Nothing that any Judge with integrity would accept. Just the usual “Trust us, we are your servants” from anonymous sources (“Trust us, we’re real people”) and their bosses who are highly political.

    And playing a very dangerous game in order to muddy the constitutional waters before the Electoral College votes.

    Russia isn’t involved but I wouldn’t be surprised if another foreign government which pays close attention to US Politics and is wedded to the neo-cons who supported Hillary, is.

    A lot of people from Obama and Hillary down are really pissed off that east Aleppo is no longer being run by Al Qaeda. They blame Putin for it. They daren’t say it to the American people, but that is their beef: Al Qaeda has been beaten and the neo-cons and likudniks are livid.

    Maybe the problem is that nobody believes that Russia has Weapons of Mass Destruction. It does.

  6. GKJames says:

    In Freudian terms, the classic struggle between ego and id. Obama has presided over a country at least half-id and growing; whatever his flaws, his comments show that once again he’s restrained the worst of its impulses. This despite the never-ending efforts by the Infotainment Complex (e.g., Lederman, Raddatz) to stoke those impulses. Imagine the place on January 20, after the adult has turned the place over to the epitome of id. Russian hacking’s the least of our concerns.

  7. lefty665 says:

    It’s the tragedy of Obama isn’t it? Listening to his presser I was once again impressed by his rationality, intelligence and amazing delivery. I still don’t quite understand why he went so far off the tracks so quickly, but was clear what was happening by Thanksgiving ’08. It never got better.

    The anti Russian, Trump is coming, overturn the election hysteria is frightening. It seems the Hillaryphile rank and file Dems are wallowing in emotion and are mostly clueless, while their “leadership” is knowingly playing with fire. One of the things that drove us out of the party several years ago was losing the argument with “leaders” who asserted that the Repubs lie so we have to lie too. Now it seems that the Dems have adopted the worst of the Repub tactics and are trying to install Hillary through hysteria. This makes prompt purge and reform of the party even more imperative if it is to have a future.

    America seems to have no clue about how vulnerable our systems are. That the DNC and people like Hillary, Podesta, Abadin, et all are so profoundly ignorant is scary, and just the tip of the iceberg. Getting into a cyber tit for tat with the Russians, or anyone else with any skills for that matter, will be an unmitigated disaster for unprepared boobus Americanus. But that doesn’t give the saber rattlers or media sycophants even a glimmer of insight or cause them to pause.

    Thanks for another thoughtful, informed post. Gives me hope we’ll muddle through somehow.

  8. martin says:

    Meanwhile, the Dumbest Country on the Planet holds it’s breath for the EC count. Unfortunately, they’ve already leaped towards the abyss…

    http://www.stonelodgecouncil.net/2016/12/19/when-lemmings-march-to-war/

    I especially like this … “Trump has called this payment and the nuclear agreement “the worst deal ever negotiated,” and has promised to scuttle it. This type of ignorance on the part of the POTUS is alarming and appalling. I suspect there will be plenty to write about as this moron commences his destruction.”

    Speaking of destruction, I’m sure Herr Trump has added the authors name to his Journalists to Destroy list.

  9. Felicia says:

    First of all thanks a lot for making a transcript of a large part of Obama’s last presser.

    1. I am not sure if he really is so neutral. He defends his handling of all by stressing he did all to make sure the elections/voting would go on safe. On the other hand, I can not hear it anything different then Obama also claims very clear he has no doubt Putin ‘tampered’ with the election(‘since nothing happens in Russia without Putin’, you can not think different: Putin is the evil genius behind this as well).

    2. Obama’s comments on how he spoke with Putin stresses that he has been very though on him and he tells in fact that after he did that it stopped. This is not so clear when you see what he said after the meeting with Putin in China: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YCWPlG_10JE). it also contradicts imo what Donna Brazile said in an interview in which she stresses it went on till the election (http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2016/12/19/interim-dnc-chair-brazile-appears-to-contradict-obamas-hacking-comments.html)

    I also read lot’s of comments i the first two weeks that only show Obama is not speaking the truth here. E.g 10/7/2016 http://thehill.com/policy/cybersecurity/299874-obama-administration-publicly-blames-russia-for-dnc-hack

    3. In your transcript/excerpts you are pretty short when it comes to the answer on the question if Hillary lost because of the hacking. The answer was like most answers: first neutral and after that a pretty strong BUT. And that is: ‘I think she was not treated fair during the election, the coverage of her and the issues was troubling. Stating the press covered every single titbit Wikileaks offered seems to me the opposite of what really happened. In fact I was flabbergasted how little attention the wikileaks releases got compared to all “pussy grabbing coverage”

    Anyone can see this is simply not true quantitatively and qualitatively (just count the positive articles or segments on cable shows, check where in newspapers the news is placed, how many minutes attention is given to positive or negative coverage of both candidates)

    4. Downplaying the significance of the released e-mails: Obama suggests it is just routine stuff, although a bit embarrassing. But anyone can end up in a situation like that according to him. To me it is pretty serious that foreign nations got access to Clinton as secretary of state by paying millions to the CF or as b-day gift to Bill Clinton, the collusion with the media and the corruption in the DNC.

    5. Sort of discrediting this information as Fakenews and propaganda by foreign nations is troubling. Of course there was a lot of fakenews, but that came for a substantial part from mainstream media (if anything harms democracy it is that).

    6. Obama stressed Trump is sort of adjusting from being in a campaign into government and he stresses that is different. He says he hopes Trump will agree on the importance of cybersecurity. That is sort of insinuation he might not be.  Although I am no fan of Trump at all, I do really think there can not be a doubt about that, no president would accept that,

    7. when it comes to responses to Putin, it is important to consider the international situation and especially Syria. Assad is not the president you would like, but most people in Eastern Aleppo preferred him above the Al Nusra in eastern Aleppo. The US sort of is no part anymore in solutions that will be made (which is bad and would be much better if it really was a broader international approach). A president talking about reponses has more on his mind than the hacking/leaking and has to be careful what he says. I guess that is why words were a bit stronger in the begining of october than they are now. ‘No problem for us’ could just as well have to do with that.

    Again I am for sure no fan of Trump, but just looking at the facts, I can not do different than think that Obama in this presser positioned him self as a wise man above all parties and willing to have the best for the US and doing all to let this be a good transition, but between the lines and the things he says after the buts I doubt if that is what he really wants.

    It would not surprise me if the time comes when he gets his rapport about all, it will contribute to more division than unity in the USA

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