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Obama decided not to take action against Russian hackers during 2016 election, former CIA director says

Former CIA Director John Brennan (Pete Souza/The White House)
April 18, 2018

Former CIA Director John Brennan recently revealed that President Barack Obama had the opportunity to conduct retaliatory cyber action against Moscow during the 2016 election season, but the President ultimately decided against it, the Washington Free Beacon reported.

Brennan disclosed on Saturday that Obama was concerned that any action his administration took might lead to more aggressive interference from the Kremlin. The former President rejected a plan to carry out “a cyber event” against Russia and instead resorted to vague warnings to Russian officials.

“There was consideration about rattling their cages with some type of cyber event,” Brennan said during remarks to a journalism conference at the University of California Berkeley. On the final outcome, Brennan confirmed that “President Obama was the ultimate decision-maker on that.”

Brennan said the Obama Administration’s decision to not confront Russia with a cyber attack is widely viewed as a significant counterintelligence failure during the 2016 election.

“We were really trying to strike the right balance between doing everything we could to prevent and thwart, as well as to uncover and understand what the Russians were doing without doing anything that would almost advance their interests in trying to disrupt our election,” he said.

Brennan said the intelligence community detected Russian hackers navigating inside state election voter regulation roll computers and other election-related networks, though the damage was limited.

“They had things that they could have done that they didn’t do,” Brennan said of the Russians.

There was also the concern that if the Obama Administration did take action against Russia, it could be perceived as the Democratic parting seeking to influence the election outcome or otherwise delegitimize the results by blaming Moscow.

“So if we did more things and stood at the hilltops and cried out, ‘the Russians, the Russians are trying to help Trump get elected,’ and if President Obama who is the titular head of the Democratic Party were to do that, I think that there would have been a lot of people [who] would believe, I think with some justification, that the President of the United States was trying to influence the outcome of a Presidential election,” Brennan said.

Intelligence agencies confirmed in a 2017 report that Russian civilian and military intelligence agencies did conduct aggressive campaigns to influence social discord during the 2016 election, particularly on social media through advertisements and fake accounts.

In February, 13 Russians were indicted for their involvement in an internet scheme that perpetuated the spread of misinformation and swayed public opinion.

On the Obama Administration’s inaction, Kenneth deGraffenreid, former deputy national counterintelligence executive, called it a major counterintelligence failure.

“If Brennan’s claims are true, the Obama Administration’s inaction in the face of this Russian cyber aggression represents a serious counterintelligence failure that has had terrible consequences,” deGraffenreid said.

“Good counterintelligence requires an active element beyond collecting and analyzing the secret information that has been uncovered – namely countering this serious foreign intelligence threat in an effective way. The U.S. has the sophisticated tools to do this,” he said.

“There simply is no excuse for not doing so,” he added. “Our national security depends on American leaders taking the action required.”