Obama Fear of Retaliation Limited Response to Russian Meddling, Book Reveals; "The Russians' Goal Was Not Just to Sow Chaos and Confusion but to Tip the 2016 Presidential Election to Donald J. Trump."

By Whipple, Chris | Newsweek, September 18, 2020 | Go to article overview

Obama Fear of Retaliation Limited Response to Russian Meddling, Book Reveals; "The Russians' Goal Was Not Just to Sow Chaos and Confusion but to Tip the 2016 Presidential Election to Donald J. Trump."


Whipple, Chris, Newsweek


Byline: Chris Whipple

It is the CIA director's job to identify and sound the alarm about risks to national security and "to serve as the president's honest broker of intelligence," according to Chris Whipple, bestselling author of The Gatekeepers. At a time when concerns over foreign interference in American elections is at an all-time high, this part of the job is particularly significant, yet the position inherently lacks transparency.

In his new book, The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future (Scribner, September), Whipple sheds light on the relationships between the directors and the presidents they served. Whipple's extensive interviews of the heads of the American intelligence community from the '60s to today provide insight into critical decisions around developments like 9/11, drone warfare and the lead-up to the coronavirus pandemic. In this excerpt, Whipple explores the initial discovery of Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election and the calculations that went into moderating the American response to the Russian threat of attack. The fear: that a strong response would open the floodgates to even more cyberattacks against America--wreaking even greater chaos.

In his seventh-floor office overlooking the wooded campus of Langley, Virginia, John Brennan sat at a conference table, hunched over his laptop. It was midnight, August 2, 2016, and the CIA director was surrounded by debris--black binders, white legal pads, a bowl of cold soup. It was not unusual for him to be there at all hours, poring over intelligence reports; in more than three years as head of the world's most powerful spy agency, Brennan often worked well into the night, trying to connect the dots of an imminent terrorist attack. But he'd never seen anything like the threat he was now confronting.

The attacks of 9/11 had been preceded by a cacophony of warnings, "red lights flashing." But this threat, in the summer of 2016, was different--more like a gathering storm. "When you're CIA director there are a lot of clouds up there," Brennan recalled. "You're looking out, and sometimes they're far off and they're forming. And you get the barometric readings. And sometimes there is that burning piece of intelligence that says: 'there's going to be an attack tomorrow.' Other times, you realize, there's something going on."

Something ominous had been going on throughout 2016, much of it in broad daylight. In March, the Russian intelligence agency, GRU, began hacking the email accounts of Clinton campaign officials, including chairman John Podesta. The following month hackers linked to Russia broke into the website of the Democratic National Committee (DNC); a huge cache of stolen emails was released on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. Equally troubling was the behavior of the eventual Republican nominee, Donald Trump, who seemed to echo Moscow's talking points. Members of his campaign staff had been in contact with officials linked to Russian intelligence. Then, in July 2016, Trump brazenly dared Moscow to illegally hack into Clinton's emails: "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing." That same day, the Russians made their first effort to break into servers used by Clinton's office.

Putting the Pieces TogetherIn late July, Brennan told his experts to pull together everything they'd gathered on the Russian threat since the beginning of the year. No one was better than Brennan at sifting through and interpreting raw material from disparate sources--and he now realized it added up to one thing: The Russians were poised to launch a crippling cyberattack on the American electoral system. (Brennan and the CIA weren't yet aware of the extent of the social media disinformation campaign that would also be deployed.) The Russians' goal was not just to sow chaos and confusion but to tip the 2016 presidential election to Donald J. …

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