[Photo: National Security Agency, Ft. Meade, MD via Wikimedia]

The Preferred Anti-Obama Russian Hack Story Remains Silent on Shadow Brokers

Michael Isikoff and David Corn are fluffing their upcoming book on the Russian tampering with the 2016 election. This installment covers the same ground, and the same arguments, and has the same weaknesses that this WaPo article did: It describes how urgent but closely held the CIA tips were (without considering whether the close hold on the intelligence led the IC to make incorrect conclusions about the attack). It describes efforts to make a public statement that got drowned out by the Pussy Grabber and Podesta releases. It airs the disappointment of those who thought Obama should have launched a more aggressive response.

Perhaps the biggest addition to the WaPo version is that this one includes more discussion of Obama’s thoughts on cyber proliferation, with the acknowledgement that the US would be more vulnerable than Russia in an escalating cyber confrontation.

Michael Daniel and Celeste Wallander, the National Security Council’s top Russia analyst, were convinced the United States needed to strike back hard against the Russians and make it clear that Moscow had crossed a red line. Words alone wouldn’t do the trick; there had to be consequences. “I wanted to send a signal that we would not tolerate disruptions to our electoral process,” Daniel recalled. His basic argument: “The Russians are going to push as hard as they can until we start pushing back.”

Daniel and Wallander began drafting options for more aggressive responses beyond anything the Obama administration or the US government had ever before contemplated in response to a cyberattack. One proposal was to unleash the NSA to mount a series of far-reaching cyberattacks: to dismantle the Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks websites that had been leaking the emails and memos stolen from Democratic targets, to bombard Russian news sites with a wave of automated traffic in a denial-of-service attack that would shut the news sites down, and to launch an attack on the Russian intelligence agencies themselves, seeking to disrupt their command and control modes.


One idea Daniel proposed was unusual: The United States and NATO should publicly announce a giant “cyber exercise” against a mythical Eurasian country, demonstrating that Western nations had it within their power to shut down Russia’s entire civil infrastructure and cripple its economy.


The principals did discuss cyber responses. The prospect of hitting back with cyber caused trepidation within the deputies and principals meetings. The United States was telling Russia this sort of meddling was unacceptable. If Washington engaged in the same type of covert combat, some of the principals believed, Washington’s demand would mean nothing, and there could be an escalation in cyber warfare. There were concerns that the United States would have more to lose in all-out cyberwar.

“If we got into a tit-for-tat on cyber with the Russians, it would not be to our advantage,” a participant later remarked. “They could do more to damage us in a cyber war or have a greater impact.” In one of the meetings, Clapper said he was worried that Russia might respond with cyberattacks against America’s critical infrastructure—and possibly shut down the electrical grid.


Asked at a post-summit news conference about Russia’s hacking of the election, the president spoke in generalities—and insisted the United States did not want a blowup over the issue. “We’ve had problems with cyber intrusions from Russia in the past, from other counties in the past,” he said. “Our goal is not to suddenly in the cyber arena duplicate a cycle escalation that we saw when it comes to other arms races in the past, but rather to start instituting some norms so that everybody’s acting responsibly.”

The most dramatic part of the piece quotes an angry Susan Rice telling her top Russian expert to stand down some time after August 21.

One day in late August, national security adviser Susan Rice called Daniel into her office and demanded he cease and desist from working on the cyber options he was developing. “Don’t get ahead of us,” she warned him. The White House was not prepared to endorse any of these ideas. Daniel and his team in the White House cyber response group were given strict orders: “Stand down.” She told Daniel to “knock it off,” he recalled.

Daniel walked back to his office. “That was one pissed-off national security adviser,” he told one of his aides.

But like the WaPo article before it, and in spite of the greater attentiveness to the specific dates involved, the Isikoff/Corn piece makes not one mention of the Shadow Brokers part of the operation, which first launched just as NSC’s Russian experts were dreaming up huge cyber-assaults on Russia.

On August 13, Shadow Brokers released its first post, releasing files that had compromised US firewall providers and including a message that — while appearing to be an attack on American Elites and tacitly invoking Hillary — emphasizes how vulnerable the US would be if its own cybertools were deployed against it.

We want make sure Wealthy Elite recognizes the danger cyber weapons, this message, our auction, poses to their wealth and control. Let us spell out for Elites. Your wealth and control depends on electronic data. You see what “Equation Group” can do. You see what cryptolockers and stuxnet can do. You see free files we give for free. You see attacks on banks and SWIFT in news. Maybe there is Equation Group version of cryptolocker+stuxnet for banks and financial systems? If Equation Group lose control of cyber weapons, who else lose or find cyber weapons? If electronic data go bye bye where leave Wealthy Elites?

Sure, it’s possible the IC didn’t know right away that this was a Russian op (though Isikoff and Corn claim, dubiously and in contradiction to James Clapper’s November 17, 2016 testimony, that the IC had already IDed all the cut-outs Russia was using on the Guccifer 2.0 and DC Leaks operations). Though certainly the possibility was publicly discussed right away. By December, I was able to map out how it seemed the perpetrators were holding the NSA hostage to any retaliation attempts. Nice little NSA you’ve got here; it’d be a shame if anything happened to it. After the inauguration, Shadow Brokers took a break, until responding to Trump’s Syria strike by complaining that he was abandoning those who had gotten him elected.

Respectfully, what the fuck are you doing? TheShadowBrokers voted for you. TheShadowBrokers supports you. TheShadowBrokers is losing faith in you. Mr. Trump helping theshadowbrokers, helping you. Is appearing you are abandoning “your base”, “the movement”, and the peoples who getting you elected.

That was followed by a release of tools that would soon lead to billion dollar attacks using repurposed NSA tools.

As recently as February, the NSA and CIA were still trying to figure out what Russia (and the stories do appear to confirm the IC believed this was Russia) had obtained.

I mean, it’s all well and good to complain that Obama asked the NSC to stand down from its plans to launch massive cyberattacks as a warning to Putin. But you might, first, consider whether that decision happened at a time when the US was facing far greater uncertainty about our own vulnerabilities on that front.

48 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    emptywheel writes:

    “… But like the WaPo article before it, and in spite of the greater attentiveness to the specific dates involved, the Isikoff/Corn piece makes not one mention of the Shadow Brokers part of the operation, which first launched just as NSC’s Russian experts were dreaming up huge cyber-assaults on Russia.

    On August 13, Shadow Brokers released its first post, releasing files that had compromised US firewall providers and including a message that — while appearing to be an attack on American Elites and tacitly invoking Hillary — emphasizes how vulnerable the US would be if its own cybertools were deployed against it… ”

    what else is there to say about why obama’s cyber response was so limp? why he would not authorize a strong, even violent, cybercattack on the russian government, say, tying up their communications or navigation satellites.

    economic sanctions may have been all we had left in our arsenal thatcwe dared use.

    but also, obama’s sense of domestic politics, his personal dislike of confrontation and aggression, and his knowledge of the certainty of a conspiratorial, whack-a-dooddle response by the mighty wurlitzer played by donald j. trump had to have figured in his response.

    one question in my mind is was the russian attack on the american elections and the attack on the nsa cyberwarfare weapons part of a co-ordinated campaign by the soviet gru, or simply two lucky coincidences? if the former, it was quite a checkmate.

    were gucifer 2.0 and shadowbrokers brothers? or just two guys who met and became friends?

  2. Rayne says:

    As always, the minority opinion here: I can’t get out of my head the heat map showing WannaCry’s dispersion.

    A little too late by half and sloppy to boot, if it’s what I think it was.

    • orionATL says:

      for my money, minority opinions are not only welcome but necessary.

      i do wish the article would tell me the country in which eternal blue/wanna cry got started.

      • Rayne says:

        The article may not want to say for the same reason I don’t want to point it out a second time. I mentioned it last year but I had a lot of concerns about the scenario. Let’s just say the risk of massive collateral damage was very high.

        • DMM says:

          “collateral damage” = Muse = Britain, right? OMG, the UK!

          Is this meant to say that it was perhaps other than the US’ official declaration (Dec 2017) of attribution?

          • Rayne says:

            “collateral damage” I won’t get into, not government or military targets if my suspicions were correct.

            I am always skeptical of attributions when I can’t see the methodology used in assessment and/or the outcome doesn’t match what would be the desired aim of the party/ies blamed.

            • DMM says:

              I am always skeptical of attributions when I can’t see the methodology…

              Absolutely, this all day. This skepticism needs to be pounded into many journos’ heads (metaphorically speaking). One big reason for is that, when all the methodology and evidence is presented, it’s easy to see how weak most attribution is, esp. by private companies against a sophisticated adversary.

  3. Bay State Librul says:

    I have a simplistic reason:
    Obama did not want to meddle in the election since he would be castigated by the right.
    Obama thought Hilary would win.
    After she lost, he sent the whole Russia “thingy” in motion…. (smart move)

    • bmaz says:

      Yeah. Sure. A LOT of people assumed that, including Comey. It was garbage then, and the excuse is garbage now.

      It is one thing for people on blogs, it it quite another for a sitting Presidency to be so cavalier and gutless.

      The Russian apologists are full of shit; however, the one place they are NOT wrong is that the Obama Admin screwed the pooch.

      • Phil Perspective says:

        That’s just the thing.  Where does this all end?  Both countries descending into anarchy?

      • joejoejoe says:

        It drives me bananas when Joe Biden and Denis McDonough come out with grown-up serious voices and try to pin the blame for President Obama not speaking or acting more decisively here on Mitch McConnell. Who is the executive? To whom do the national security agencies report? Sharing with the Gang of Four is a custom, not a law. President Obama ceded the agency of his office to the Senate majority leader by custom. The President is the leader of the Executive branch by law.  Act like it!

      • GKJames says:

        Too cautious, maybe, but hardly cavalier. One, it’s not as if there’s a wealth of precedent to draw on in terms of how best to respond. Two, could it be that there weren’t good and effective options? And, three, was there even a consensus in the advice given him?

        • orionATL says:

          that’s the thing – we all have our opinions of what a person/politician/leader should have done or should not have done in a given situation, but very few of us have ever been there and faced that moment of decision. we’re thumping our chests and saying, “if it was me i would have faced down that tiger”.

    • DMM says:

      While there may be a kernel of truth to this (perhaps fearing Trump instigated action that would turn violent), this would be a lot stronger if there hadn’t been a constant state of castigation, often for purely imaginary things, of Obama by the right since the minute he declared his candidacy.

      If we’re going with a political dimension as explanation, I’d think if anything it would more likely be attributable to his cooler head re: escalation and general dealing with Russia (relative to the dominant neocon & Dem-hawk DC mindset).

    • SpaceLifeForm says:

      Makes sense. Note that Obama updated 12333 for the intel sharing between election and inauguration.

  4. earlofhuntingfdon says:

    Only slightly OT, bmaz is right. Chuck Todd is a hapless dick who shouldn’t be within a country mile of hosting what purports to be a news hour.

  5. earlofhuntingfdon says:

    Only slightly OT, bmaz is right.  Chuck Todd is a hapless twit who shouldn’t be within a country mile of hosting what purports to be a news hour.

    • Trip says:

      Also, that Donnie Wahlberg sucks as an actor. But I’ll raise and see bmaz: Marky Mark isn’t much better, IMO.

      Chuck Todd, given the ‘proper training’, might be well-suited for Fox News. It always seems to me that he would like to skew right, but is held back somewhat by other forces. He definitely has the arrogance as a prerequisite.


        • SpaceLifeForm says:

          We believe this is pivotal for the following reason: the initial e-mail in the string, which is at the bottom of the page is an e-mail from a representative of the alerting him that they have effectively laid out his wishes,” Avenatti said about the payment to Daniels. “He turns around then and forwards that e-mail to himself. He then turns around and forwards that to his personal e-mail account which is the next e-mail in the string above that.”

          “Why would Michael Cohn then feel the need to forward that e-mail to himself to his private e-mail address to then communicate with Stormy Daniels’ attorney?” Cooper wondered.

          Avenatti said he didn’t have an answer.

          [Answer: Trying to hide Metadata]

  6. Bay State Librul says:


    Why do you think you know more than Obama knew?

    He had access to top secret info that I’m afraid, you didn’t.

    You don’t know the answer, do you?

    It was a miscalculation….

    Why are you being an asshole?

    • Phil Perspective says:

      Do you know why stuff is Top Secret?  Do you remember what Daniel Ellsberg, I think, said about intelligence briefings and such?

  7. Rapier says:

    It’s the Shadow Brokers “Wealthy Elite” stuff that is really too much. Perhaps you have noticed that the assets of the ‘elites’ are inflating at a rapid pace and so too their wealth, and power.  As if Trump was not going to be all in on inflating the assets of our demigods.  He’s more in than even the Clinton’s who at least lie to themselves and actually seem to believe that neoliberal hocus pocus. Seem to believe that inflating assets creates wealth for the benefit of  the people in some way that consistent with The Enlightenment and Democracy. You can forget all that now. That’s over. Trump or no Trump.

    The whole Wealthy Elite stuff is BS. It’s an absurd rhetorical trick to make people think Shadow Brokers is some kind of twisted leftist or anarchist sort of affair, or some such thing.  What’s your take on them viewed through the Wealthy Elite rhetoric?  I’d like to know.  “Wealthy Elite” has no meaning in trying to separate Trump from Clinton.

    This was a very significant day in that it is exactly the 9th anniversary of QE, Fed printing, which ended the bear market. Now we are on the cusp of a huge breakout to the upside in stocks.  Making American great again.  Even though the Fed is now not printing but destroying money by reversing QE. It seems impossible that the market can inflate in the face of that but they are and I’m certain that this was the intent of Shadow Brokers and everyone else in this tale.

    Then I keep coming back to Putin praising our stock market. WTF? That isn’t to say cyber could not crash our markets by the way. In a heartbeat my man. In a heartbeat.

    Well I have gone right off the deep end.  Sorry.

  8. SpaceLifeForm says:

    Trump steel tariffs may leave these U.S. steelworkers jobless

    But Lang is one of around 780 workers at the Novolipetsk Steel PAO (NLMK) (NLMK.MM) mill, NLMK’s U.S. subsidiary which imports around 2 million tons of steel slabs annually from its Russian parent company. The slabs that the mill rolls into sheets for customers including Caterpillar Inc (CAT.N), Deere & Co (DE.N) Harley Davidson Inc (HOG.N) and Home Depot Inc (HD.N), are almost impossible to acquire from U.S. steel producers.




  9. Bay State Librul says:

    Getting back to Obama.
    If he had acted, wouldn’t that have screwed up the Mueller investigation (claims of bias)?

    • bmaz says:

      If Obama had “acted” there likely never would have been a Mueller investigation.

      But even positing this question in this manner assumes there was, and/or should have been, a political bent for a sitting president that ought only be thinking about American democracy.

      • Trip says:

        We’ll never know what would have happened. But the alt-right of Breitbart and Zerohedge, et al were promising civil war if Trump lost. All of this was in the midst of Trump claiming that the elections were rigged or going to be rigged in Hillary’s favor, with something-something deep state.  Imagine if Obama would have intervened, this would have been proof positive for them that he was corrupting the election process. In fact, they insist he’s doing it now anyway.

        I’m not excusing Obama for doing nothing. I’m simply stating the repercussions from acting may have been different, but severe, as well.  Win or lose, the Trump camp propaganda machinery enforced a conspiracy narrative that made Trump’s positioning bullet-proof for his supporters and the self-determined disenfranchised left.



        • bmaz says:

          No doubt, that is absolutely right. There was no good option/answer for Obama, especially given the McConnell obstreperousness. In hindsight, wish he had just said fuck it and been honest with the public. It really was an impossible position Obama was in though.

          Also, glad to hear I am not alone on the Donnie Wahlberg thing.

        • SpaceLifeForm says:

          Keep in mind that big investigations had been (and still are) ongoing for years at that time. Most likely, they did not want to reveal ‘stuff’.

        • Desider says:

          Obama let himself be beaten into inaction – again. Most of his presidency was calculated standoffs with Republicans, and a few culture wars photo ops. One of the reasons Hillary’s campaign was so tough was trying to latch onto the “successes” of a no drama, lackluster presidency. No fight, only dull plodding slight improvements, always “what would people think?”

          In this case, Obama was more interested in assuring us nothing was wrong than sounding an alarm. I still don’t trust the WI-MI-PA results with no audits and knowing the Russians got their hands on voter rolls. “Trust yet verify” was once a reasonable summation. Now it’s “don’t make waves, the other side might raise a storm”. It’s that same ass-saving behavior that Comey fell for (and all that smug self-serving Captain America stuff belies all the ugly FBI mistakes and overreach that Marcy’s laid out so well over the years.

          Biden? Don’t get me started.

  10. Bay State Librul says:

    Hindsight/Speculation/20/20 vision?
    Maybe James Joyce can render an answer..

    “These questions are very profound, Mr Dedalus, said the dean. It is like looking down from the cliffs of Moher into the depths. Many go down into the depths and never come up. Only the trained diver can go down into those depths and explore them and come to the surface again.

    — If you mean speculation, sir, said Stephen, I also am sure that there is no such thing as free thinking inasmuch as all thinking must be bound by its own laws.

    Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

  11. TomA says:

    Marcy is the only one pointing to the bigger picture. Election meddling is small potatoes compared the mayhem that may soon erupt when these cyber tools are deployed against bedrock institutions in banking, commerce, communications, government bureaucracies, and many other critical infrastructure industries. It’s nuclear war without the physical destruction and radioactive fallout. And proliferation of these technologies cannot be contained in the same way that nuclear source material is managed.

    The times they are a changin.

  12. Bay State Librul says:


    Is Devin Nunes in legal jeopardy?

    He has “consciousness of guilt” written all over his body….

  13. Trip says:

    emptywheel‏ @emptywheel 11h11 hours ago

    I think of Putin’s anti-semitic pre-emptive blame very differently: why is he doing that? Bc of US anti-semitism or Russian? If the latter why does he feel like he’ll need to play to RU base instincts?
    Distancing himself from Netanyahu (conflating Jewishness with Israel Likud policy or Zionism), because Putin is concerned about losing Kremlin influence in the Middle East? AIPAC does have enormous sway in the US. In that sense, he is not wrong. But Putin doesn’t care about the US. Putin cares about Putin.


    Full text of Netanyahu’s 2018 address to AIPAC (at link)

    When I last spoke here, I warned, tried to warn the world about a nuclear deal that was a threat to the survival of Israel, the security of the region, the peace of the world. I warned that Iran’s regime had repeatedly lied to the international community, that it could not be trusted. I warned that the deal gives Iran a clear path towards developing a nuclear arsenal in little more than a decade. And I warned that by removing Iran’s sanctions, Iran’s regime would not become more moderate and peaceful, but more extreme and belligerent, much more dangerous. Here is what Iran is doing today. Darkness is descending on our region. Iran is building an aggressive empire: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, more to come. Now Iran is seeking to build permanent military bases in Syria, seeking to create a land bridge from Tartus, from Tehran to Tartus on the Mediterranean. And in addition to moving its army, its air force, its navy to Syria to be able to attack Israel from closer hand, it’s also seeking to develop, to build precision guided missile factories in Syria and Lebanon against Israel. I will not let that happen. We will not let that happen. We must stop Iran. We will stop Iran.And, ladies and gentlemen, that’s exactly what has happened.


    Israel’s Trump:

    Stick With Me Even if I’m Indicted, Netanyahu Expected to Demand of Coalition Partners 
Defense Minister Lieberman toughens stance as Netanyahu holds critical meeting with ultra-Orthodox partners 
Before leaving for Washington a week ago, Netanyahu was asked if the issue would end up in an early election. “There is no reason for this to happen – with some goodwill it doesn’t have to happen,” he said. “I have the will and I hope my coalition partners have the same goodwill.” 

    AIPAC, the U.S. Branch of Netanyahu’s Likud Party 
The group’s message is loud and clear: We’re not interested in nonsense like investigations, corruption, bribery, arrests and people who turn state’s evidence …Haaretz

    Friends of Israel: September 1, 2014 Issue
    The lobbying group AIPAC has consistently fought the Obama Administration on policy. Is it now losing influence?

    The answer was decidedly  “NO”.  Netanyahu lobbied against Obama. Obama sent campaigners into Israel against Bibi. And so it goes.


    • Trip says:

      One more thing occurred to me: Strong evidence emerges that will indisputably point to Russian hacking, and Putin is looking to preemptively deflect blame to dual Russian/Israeli citizens, within Russia?


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