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Former Obama cyber chief ordered to ‘stand down’ against 2016 Russian hacking

President Obama and National Security Advisor Susan Rice speak on the phone to Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel. March 22, 2016. (The White House/Flickr)
July 20, 2018

A former chief cyber specialist from the Obama Administration testified on Wednesday that he was told to cease his counter-hacking efforts against Russians in 2016.

Michael Daniel served as White House “cyber security coordinator” from 2012 to January 2017. He developed proposals to counter Russia’s hacking efforts during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election but was told to “stand down” his efforts, and his proposals relegated to the “back burner,” according to Yahoo News.

Daniel’s orders were revealed during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on the Obama Administration’s handling of Russian hacking in 2016.

The committee found that the Obama Administration failed to properly gather intelligence about Russia’s hacking efforts, and failed in developing an effective response to the hacking.

Senate Democrat Mark Warner said: “We were caught flat-footed at the outset and our collective response was inadequate to meet Russia’s escalation.”

Another witness to the failed efforts was Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for Europe during the Obama Administration.

She told the committee she was briefed in December 2015 about the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) – reportedly before DNC officials had knowledge of the hacking.

Nuland was told at the time that the hacking looked like a job by the Russians.

In the spring of 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry invited proposals for countering Russian hacking. However, Nuland said the proposals were never implemented because Obama Administration officials assumed the next administration would do so.

“I believe there were deterrence measures we could have taken and should have taken,” she testified.

After intelligence of the Russian hacking surfaced in early summer 2016, Daniel ordered his National Security Council staff to develop harsh countermeasures to combat the hacking.

He described the measures as “the full range of potential actions” that would work to “impose costs on the Russians — both openly to demonstrate that we could do it as a deterrent and also clandestinely to disrupt their operations, as well.”

Daniel described his experience in a passage published in the book, “Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump,” by David Corn and Michael Isikoff.

Sen. James Risch asked about the book’s passage, in which Daniel said that a member of his staff, Daniel Prieto, was specifically ordered to cease the efforts and “stand down” by then-National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Rice was reportedly worried about leaks that would “box the President in.”

Prieto is quoted in the book as saying: “I was incredulous and in disbelief.”

“It took me a moment to process. In my head, I was like, did I hear that correctly,” he added.

Daniel said his superiors at the National Security Council were concerned about “how many people were working on the option” and delivered the decision from the White House to “neck down the number of people that were involved in developing our ongoing response options.”

Daniel’s team was shifted away from cyber deterrent efforts, instead focusing on assisting state and local governments to protect election systems.