No one from the Obama administration seems to remember when they figured out they were falling victim to one of the greatest intelligence operations in history.
"This was the kind of realization that came incrementally," a former senior State Department official told BuzzFeed News. "There wasn’t a moment where you realized that Pearl Harbor had been hit by kamikaze or that the World Trade Center has been hit."
Now, as two congressional committees and the FBI investigate Russia's role in the election, former Obama officials find themselves grappling with a new legacy, one that formed at the 11th hour of their time in power. As they looked toward a world where pariahs like Iran and Cuba were won over with diplomacy, they fell victim to a sneak attack by an old adversary. And they let it happen, offering up stern warnings and finger-wagging instead of adequately punishing Russia for achieving something that even the Soviet Union at the height of its power couldn’t manage: meddling in the US election and rattling Americans’ trust in their democracy.
Initially, news that Russia-backed hackers had infiltrated the email systems of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) split the Obama administration. White House staffers struggled to wrap their heads around the scale of what occurred and found themselves unsure of how to respond without appearing to give Hillary Clinton a boost. The State Department's staff were torn over how far to press the matter with Russia, given other priorities like struggling to find an endgame for the Syrian civil war. Across the Potomac, the Defense Department was pushing for a strong response against Russia. "The White House was more in listening mode," a former Defense Department official told BuzzFeed News.
The official described what ensued as "endless discussion after endless discussion."
After weeks of intense debate, the White House’s ambivalence won. On Oct. 7, a Friday afternoon, they released a carefully worded, three-paragraph statement, saying that the US intelligence community was "confident" that the Russian government was behind the hack. White House staffers thought publicly blaming Russia would draw the public’s attention and keep Moscow in line by making clear the US was willing to call them out. They also functioned under the assumption that Hillary Clinton would win and take a more robust approach down the line.
"When we rolled that out on Oct. 7, we thought this would get a huge amount of pickup and play and be a catalyzing moment for the country, when the United States government — the intelligence community and DHS — announced jointly that Russians were trying to hack our election," Ned Price, then the chief spokesperson for the National Security Council (NSC), told BuzzFeed News.
"A colleague of mine at another department was on the phone with a reporter, who was asking him questions about the statement," Price said. "My colleague then recalled hearing from the reporter, ‘Oh my god. I’ll have to call you back.'"
One hour after the statement dropped, the Washington Post published the 2005 "grab them by the pussy" tape. Less than half an hour later, WikiLeaks began dumping a new series of emails, this time hacked from the account of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman.
The reporter never called back.
Former officials have placed a lot of hype in the statement — the key point of which was that Russia was behind the leaks, something that had been reported for months by cybersecurity companies and journalists — during the months since leaving office. But the fact remains that the brief release had been a small shot — and it missed.
Was a press release released on a Friday afternoon, months after the hack, too little, too late? Not according to Obama administration officials. Just naming Russia, they say, should have been a sharp response enough to brush Russia back. And it wasn't their fault if no one paid attention to this press release, they say. “It was the Trump team that really took all of the oxygen out of the room and led to relatively scant coverage of that statement," said Price. "I think that was not received in the way that some of us had hoped, that it would be sort of a galvanizing force."
It wasn't. Not by a long shot.
Look, let's be honest here. The Obama White House made a number of miscalculations as to how America and the world would respond to major events, severely underestimating the GOP response to Obamacare in 2010, getting essentially the entire Arab Spring movement wrong (especially Egypt and Syria), and being overly pragmatic on a number of decisions when it came to race relations in the US. Don't get me wrong, I love the guy and I wish he could have gotten four more years. He wasn't perfect, but compared to both his predecessor and his successor, he's a genius and he's still a top 10 president of all time, hands down.
But the lasting effects of Obama taking his eye off Putin long enough for Moscow to screw us over with Trump will be with us for years, maybe decades, and it's high time we had a pretty frank conversation as a country about that.
I'm not putting the blame on Barack Obama here. He's not the one that sabotaged our country. But defending it was his stated job at the time, and that defense wasn't good enough. We need to learn the lessons from that at some point. If he had made a massive deal about it, we'd instead be blaming him for driving the country to vote GOP by starting a massive conspiracy theory or something.
Of course, lesson number one is dealing with Trump and those who enabled him, and getting rid of all of them, and dealing with the sixty million plus people who voted for the guy, They're the real problem with America, and we're going to have to deal with that, too.