The story of how Russia won the (First) Russo-American Cyberwar because American President Barack Obama did not fight back and failed to protect America’s democracy from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s well-orchestrated, wide-ranging cyberassault, part of Russia’s wider war on Western democracy
By Brian E. Frydenborg (Twitter: @bfry1981) (a condensed, edited version of this article is featured on War Is Boring; this original article was also quoted in another article by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty here and was also mentioned in a morning briefing here by the that article’s author)
AMMAN — It is fitting that, on the anniversary of Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack, I am publishing an article discussing an attack far worse in its overall effects on America than Pearl Harbor: if December 7th, 1941, is “a date which will live in infamy,” 2016 is a year which will live in infamy.
All things being equal in an election that was decided by, at current count, less than 38,600 votes spread across three states (a few over 22,150 in Pennsylvania, slightly more than 5,350 in Michigan, a few under 11,100 in Wisconsin) out of over 136 million votes cast (under 0.0284% of all votes cast), it is certain that without Russia’s political cyberwarfare offensive in the (First) Russo-American Cyberwar—and Obama’s stunning lack of response to it—Hillary Clinton would now be President-elect.
Full disclosure: I am a liberal Democrat who proudly voted twice for Obama, but I will make clear what no one seems to want to, though it pains me: I tried making excuses before and after the campaign—he thought she would win anyway, he wanted to play it safe, maybe he has something secret in store, etc.—but as the days turned to weeks after the election and I spent more and more mental energy thinking it through, the stubborn truth reared its ugly head: Obama failed miserably in his role as Commander in Chief, protector, and defender of the United Sates of America in the final months of his eight-year presidency. In doing so, he ensured his own legacy would be destroyed, likely along with the American political system as we know it and possibly (likely?) the U.S.-led international system that has been a bulwark of great-power peace since WWII.
Here is the story of how Obama lost the war.
In June of 2015, a unit of elite Russian hackers known as Cozy Bear, or APT 29, working at the behest of the main security service of the Russian government—the F.S.B., main successor to the famed Soviet-era K.G.B., where Vladimir Putin had served for over 15 years—successfully hacked into the systems of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the national governing body of the Democratic Party, completely unbeknownst to DNC staff.
The FBI contacted the DNC in the fall of 2015, warning it of possible hacking and asking its people to look for suspicious activity, but not providing any specifics; when DNC staffers responded with a sweep and found nothing, they asked the FBI to provide specifics, but it declined, keeping from them then and in future meetings the fact that U.S. officials suspected the Russian government; if the DNC had known this, it would have taken additional steps that could have limited the damage that came later. Only late in March, 2016, did the DNC realized its systems were compromised and brought in private cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike in April for help.
Also that March, another group of elite Russian hackers known as Fancy Bear, or APT 28—working at the behest of the G.R.U, Russia’s military intelligence service—targeted the DNC as well, in addition to targeting Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, namely the e-mail accounts of senior campaign officials, including Chairman John Podesta. The FBI warned the campaign in March about possible hacking, but, again, did not mention anything specific about the hackers; only in April did the campaign realize its systems had been penetrated, something U.S. intelligence chief James Clapper publicly hinted at vaguely in May.
It took until June for the DNC to expel the Russians, and on June 14th, DNC officials and CrowdStrike experts informed the Washington Post of the successful hackings. The next day, CrowdStrike released an analysis that detailed ample evidence of Fancy/Cozy Bear’s involvement. The following day, the Clinton campaign hacks were first reported.
Only days after this, a hacker/hackers going by the moniker Guccifer 2.0—an homage to the Romanian hacker made famous by publicly outing Clinton’s private e-mail server—began publicly posting DNC documents, but it was quickly clear from a consensus of experts citing overwhelming evidence that Guccifer 2.0 was actually a front for Russia’s Fancy Bear.
Soon after, it was also reported that government officials realized in June that the Clinton Foundation was also the target of attempted Russian hacks. The same month, the Russians tried to breach voter databases in Arizona but apparently failed; in July, the Russians succeeded in hacking into Illinois voter databases, stealing information on some 200,000 voters; experts suggested it was likely other states’ voter databases had been hacked undetected.
The hacking stories largely receded until the evening of Friday, July 22nd, just after Donald Trump’s official nomination and days before Clinton’s Democratic National Convention, when WikiLeaks posted close to 20,000 e-mails from the DNC that had been hacked by Russia. The grossly overblown fallout from that release has been well-documented.
The leaks could not have come at a worse time for Clinton, who was desperate to rally liberals (particularly the conspiratorially-minded among hardcore Millennial Bernie Sanders supporters, whose emotional state demanded an alternate reality where the only possible explanation for their savior’s loss was that Clinton “cheated”) wary of her to her banner for the coming fight with Trump and to display Democratic Party unity at her convention; the leaks slowed and partly prevented this process, creating remarkable public displays of disunity at the Convention and in the streets outside of it and reopening wounds that had only just begun to heal. By the time a later round of leaks came, the ability of Clinton to have built up enough goodwill among many of these people to stay with her in the face of such new leaks playing into their negative stereotypes of her was greatly diminished by this first round of DNC-related leaks.
This was not a coincidence, and it was clear from the beginning that WikiLeaks and the Russians who gave WikiLeaks the hacked information (either directly or indirectly) had designed the release to have a maximum negative impact on Clinton. Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ extremely anti-American founder and leader, made no secret of his intent to harm Clinton’s campaign and his visceral dislike of her, even while refraining from criticizing Trump, Republicans, and Russia, as he and his organization have a complicated but largely beneficial relationship with Russia.
Putin had far more reason to fear a Clinton presidency than one led by Trump, who has spent many years courting Russian favor, whose positions were the most pro-Russian for a major party candidate in American presidential campaign history, and whose campaign manager at this time, Paul Manafort, was notoriously known to have for years been on Putin’s payroll, even if indirectly.
During the week of the Democratic National Convention, it became even more obvious how intent the Russians were on damaging Clinton and the Democratic Party, and Trump even publicly called on Russia to hack Clinton. That week, it was reported that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and a voter database used by the Clinton campaign and other Democrats were also targeted by Fancy Bear. It was also reported during the same period that both cybersecurity experts and U.S. government officials had determined that that the Russian government was behind the hacking of the DNC (including a consensus of FBI officials), that officials saw this as a full-blown national security issue, and that U.S. government officials had shared this conclusion—and evidence that Russia was responsible—with the White House, which had discussed the hacks prior to the WikiLeaks DNC release; some officials had also concluded that the DNC e-mails’ release was part of a Russian attempt to hurt Clinton’s chances and help make Trump president.
Numerous Obama Administration officials were concerned enough with the lack of response that they anonymously shared their frustrations with the media. Apart from serious internal pressure on Obama from some of his advisors, the day Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination a bipartisan group of dozens of prominent former military, intelligence, and diplomatic officials and experts called on Obama in to act swiftly and forcefully to counter, deter, and punish those responsible for the hacking, describing the attempt to hack and influence the American electoral process in the gravest, starkest of terms. In addition, senior Democrats on congressional intelligence committees called on Obama to publicly name the attackers.
Later it was discovered that the hacking efforts were on a wider scale than initially thought, including the Democratic Governor’s Association, left-leaning think tanks tied to the Party, and other Democratic insiders and organizations.
Presidential Pensiveness and Paralysis
Despite all of this, Obama was steadfastly refusing to publicly name Russia as the culprit, in part because of fears of igniting a conflict and uncertainty as to how to respond to such attacks.
The most absurd part of his rationale was that he was worried naming the Russians and taking a strong stance against them would harm John Kerry’s then-ongoing diplomatic efforts to win cooperation with the Russians on Syria, as all recent diplomatic talks with them on Syria had been a farce. The same officials noted that Obama “fear[ed]” additional cyberattacks by Putin, additional military harassment in the Black and Baltic seas, and further aggression in Eastern Europe.
Yes, incredulously, Obama imagined that turning a blind eye to Russian interference in domestic American elections would somehow invite Russian compromise on other fronts, frustrating some on his team. I am reminded of the scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, when the heroes are trying to convince Théoden, King of Rohan, to stand up for his people against the disinformation and aggression of Saruman; Théoden responds by saying “I will not risk open war,” to which Aragorn retorts “Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not;” in the real world, we had Obama playing the role of a Théoden in denial.
His maddening naiveté manifesting hardly for the first time during his presidency, Obama, demonstrated how poorly he understood his adversary, and unsurprisingly, Putin was emboldened on all these fronts.
Even during Kerry’s fastidious diplomacy, on September 19th Russia deliberately bombed a well-known UN aid convoy heading for an Aleppo, Syria, civilian population that was under siege and desperate for supplies; a few days after, Russia and Syria launched a “ferocious” indiscriminate air offensive against Aleppo, an “unrelenting assault” that quickly became the most intense campaign to date in the war and involved systematic targeting of hospitals (today, Russia and Assad are, with impunity, threatening whole parts of Aleppo with mass slaughter); Ukraine also saw Russian escalation.
Kerry’s talks failed because the Russians were never serious about them, much like previous negotiations on both Syria and Ukraine had repeatedly failed. After some two weeks of these Russian war crimes, the U.S. formally broke off negotiations on October 3rd; the day after, the Guccifer 2.0 APT 28 front released fake documents it claimed proved corruption at the Clinton Foundation.
In the face of Russian mockery of Obama’s diplomatic efforts and his continued non-response to Russia’s cyberwarfare, some of Obama’s “top national security officials” grew furious with him and felt U.S. credibility was being severely damaged, especially in the intelligence community and State Department, while even top Democrats in the House and Senate intelligence committees were either criticizing Obama’s caution (Rep. Adam Schiff) or publicly stating that Russia’s goal could be to harm Clinton’s candidacy and empower Trump’s (Schiff and Sen. Diane Feinstein). Calling on Obama to do more, they issued a joint statement on September 22nd publicly blaming Russia and stating its intent was to influence the election; incredibly, the White House had repeatedly urged them to delay the statement.
In fact, for all of 2016, Russia’s own media was decidedly pro-Trump and anti-Clinton. Additionally, all throughout the campaign, up to and through Election Day, it is now quite clear that Russia’s propaganda machine of hundreds of websites and many thousands of social media accounts—some unwittingly duped, others complicit or even an army of paid agents—posted many thousands of anti-Clinton, pro-Trump, pro-Russian, and anti-American comments, posts, and stories. Sometimes they amplified true stories like the DNC hacks, often the promoted only partly true or even totally false stories that were seen hundreds of millions of times by American voters, with a core of some 15 million Americans regularly consuming the propaganda and sharing it with much larger audiences on Facebook and Twitter, to the extent that in the final months of the election, fake U.S. election news produced greater engagement and shares than real U.S. election news, a period for which Trump had just placed the despicable Steve Bannon—a major American master of creating and promoting fake news—in charge of running his campaign. I can personally tell you from my own experience that Russian trolls even have ample time left over to direct their blatant propaganda at someone of my own lowly status often, repeatedly, and energetically.
Bloodless Victory Against a Passive Opponent
Even considering all this, Obama waited the better part of a week after the Syria talks formally ended, and some two-and-a-half months after his administration had reached a consensus that Russia was behind the hackings and at least involved in the passing of the information to WikiLeaks, to finally formally accuse Russia on October 7th, explicitly asserting that the aim of its operations was to “interfere” with our presidential election, the conclusion of 17 American governmental intelligence agencies.
Later the same day, a recording from 2005 of Donald Trump vulgarly bragging about committing serial unwanted sexual advances appeared; “almost immediately after” it surfaced, Russia and WikiLeaks came to play defense for Trump and offense against Clinton, with WikiLeaks beginning a series of releases of many thousands of Clinton campaign Chairman Podesta’s e-mails, obtained earlier by Russia; they highlighted campaign infighting, transcripts of Clinton’s paid-by-Wall Street-banks speeches, and Clinton’s ties to political and financial elites, all of which generated negative publicity for Clinton. The batches were released almost every day from October 7th through Election Day on November 8th, ensuring they would constantly be in the headlines in the closing month of the election, even as U.S. officials were coming across even further evidence that Russia was feeding them directly to WikiLeaks. Exit polls—especially in the key swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and others—showed that voters who made their time up during this period broke overwhelminglyfor Trump; additionally, they showed that far more voters broke for third-party candidates in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin—as well as every swing state that Trump won—in the final weeks and month than before. For those who had been deeply angered by the DNC leak but were trying to give Clinton a chance, these new Podesta leaks were a reminder of the previous controversy and played into many of the same negative emotions and perceptions these people had harbored about Clinton.
At this point, Obama was considering a “proportional” response to Russia, but such a response still has not materialized, as any appropriate response of any proportion would have sent a public message that the world would unmistakably have heard, being that this Russo-American conflict is paying out very markedly on the global public stage; what has materialized instead is a deafening silence of action from Obama, causing Western democracies to despair. To add insult to injury, weeks before the election Trump claimed America “had no idea” if Russia was behind the hacks at the final presidential debate and Russia even requested it be allowed to send election observers to several U.S. states, which rejected the requests.
Pathetically, Obama warned Putin directly on October 31st on a sensitive nuclear-related hotline not to hack the electoral process (but making no mention of the WikiLeaks DNC and Podesta leaks), only eight days before the election and long after so much damage had already been done, clearly enough to shape public opinion and achieve Putin’s aims without direct election hacks, and the WikiLeaks leaks still continued after this message was delivered.
Obama laughably claimed the warning amounted to successful deterrence, yet even if Clinton had won, the U.S. was possibly facing massive unrest and a Congress intent on impeaching Clinton, its constituents incensed in part by Russian propaganda.
In charge of a relatively weaker Russia taking on the most powerful nation in the world and regardless of the election’s outcome, Putin had already won: he took to heart von Clausewitz’s maxim that “War is the continuation of policy [or politics] by other means,” something that Obama seems to have missed. Putin had essentially “weaponized” WikiLeaks (and, in the process, the unwitting U.S. news media) against Clinton, the Democratic Party, the U.S. electoral process, and American democracy itself. And almost overnight, he has largely silenced the Republican Party’s hostility to him and his regime: most Republicans seem to prefer not to attack their new benefactor, while the most vocal GOP critics of Putin are mostly a fading old guard (as a case in point, just a few days ago, all Democratic members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence called for the Obama Administration to declassify information on Russia’s interference in the U.S. election; not one single Republican on the Committee joined the call).
Russia’s hacking and disinformation campaigns coupled with Obama’s dismal failure to respond appropriately to them were themselves certainly more than enough to explain Clinton’s razor thin loss, even as other factors—Clinton’s e-mail server scandal, the way FBI Director James Comey engaged with the public (or did not) during the FBI’s multiple investigations, the Bernie Sanders phenomenon and the behavior of Bernie Sanders, polling errors, the style and focus of media coverage, and, of course, many Americans’ irrational, visceral hatred of Clinton born largely out of still-pervasive sexism and misogyny—undeniably also played a role. Any one of those alone not becoming a factor could have swung the election to Clinton, but they were largely out of the hands of the Clinton campaign. President Obama could have declassified most or all of Hillary’s e-mails and shown the public how innocuous they actually were; he could have reigned in Comey and the rogue actors within the FBI, as they were part of the Executive Branch, though this would have carried considerable political risk and could have at least created the appearance of a president interfering in an official investigation for political reasons; but the single area where the president could have had the most impact and been able to act in a way least tainted by questions of propriety was concerning all things related to Russia.
The Worst Defeat in American History and a Serious Blow to Western Democracy
Russia had simply waltzed into America’s national election, President Obama’s political party, and the campaign of President Obama’s chosen successor Hillary Clinton, did what it pleased for all the world to see, stared us down at our own gala, grabbed the microphone, repeatedly endorsed the savage critic of Obama and rival of Clinton Donald Trump, repeatedly badmouthed both Obama and Clinton, took a crap on the dance floor, the dropped the mike and laughed hysterically all the way during a slow waltz out the door.
Wars have been fought for far less, and yet Obama’s response was to avoid confrontation with his legacy and the future of the nation, even the future of Western democracy, very much at stake.
In a follow-up piece, I shall deal with the many options Obama had as Commander in Chief besides doing virtually nothing. But for now, perspective:
The most successful cyberattack in world history also involved the weakest response by any American president ever to foreign aggression. It was also the worst foreign attack on American soil since the War of 1812: neither Pearl Harbor nor 9/11 resulted in a regime change that put in place a President of the United States who is so unwitting a mole for Russia, grossly unfit for high office, and oblivious to how much he will undermine critical institutions and values as Trump. It is the first time a party in power in America was toppled by foreign interference and the first time a foreign power toppled the political leadership of a long-reigning first-tier power since arguably Alexander the Great took over Persia.
Additionally, Russia’s activities have greatly helped to diminish confidence in the American system, further fan the flames of cynicism, and normalize fake news, making America overall more divided, less governable, and more confused than at any time since the Civil War/Reconstruction period; these acts have also damaged the U.S.-led international system that has been in place since WWII.
It can only said of Putin’s resoundingly successful cyberwar that he played so many segments of American society to his ends without their knowledge that it was a masterful orchestral performance and that Putin was a legendary conductor. This (First) Russo-American Cyberwar will be studied for generations, for centuries, as a brilliant way for a state to take down a democratic nation, no matter how powerful, if its people are divided, and to do so without actually firing a single shot but by turning that nation’s strengths against itself.
This is part of a larger Russian war against the West that is becoming increasingly brazen: until this year, Syria and Ukraine were the most glaring centerpieces in Russia’s disinformation campaigns; then, Russian disinformation caused a faux scandal early this year in Germany that weakened Merkel and her party ahead of key regional votes; Russia’s propaganda machine went intensely against Remain and for Brexit in the UK’s big vote this year and its efforts were clearly crucial in swaying votes in what was an intensely close decision; Russia has also been active in non-NATO Sweden this year, particularly when it was voting on closer ties with NATO; Finland, which shares a huge border with Russia, has also seen a surge in Russian disinformation; early in November, it even became apparent that Russia may have even been involved in an attempted coup in Montenegro, which is on the verge of ascending to membership in NATO.
Since Trump’s election and just this week, Russia’s tool WikiLeaks is already unleashing its might against Angela Merkel and her party in Germany, which fears far more interference in its 2017 national elections, and Russian propaganda was active in supporting the right-wing parties in Italy’s big vote that was a stinging defeat for it centrist pro-EU leader and his party (he will now soon resign), though efforts were less successful in Austria, where the pro-Russian far-right candidate failed by only a modestly large margin in an election that still signaled a significant weakening of Austria’s political center and in which fake news (not yet directly linked to Russia) played a major role during the campaign. In Russia, lawmakers cheered the developments in both Italy and Austria, seeing them as further signs of the demise of the current European system. Also since Trump’s victory, pro-Russian presidential candidates won in Moldova and Bulgaria, where Russian political meddling has been a significant force in shaping the political climate in the years preceding the recent votes. Additionally, Russia’s neighboring three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—already subject to heavy Russian disinformation operations—have seen a significant increase in Russian disinformation since the U.S. election and many there fear what is to come next. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the leader of close U.S. ally South Korea is now facing impeachment during a period of massive unrest in part provoked by Trump, even as a politician known as “Korea’s Trump” is rising in the polls.
Today, right-wing extremists—now that the Soviet Union is gone and Russia is not a champion of communism and the international left—admire Putin’s authoritarianism and see him as a defender of the West, a newly increasingly illiberal, rather than liberal, West, and Russian support for right-wing pro-Russian parties in Europe is hardly limited to propaganda and disinformation: Russia has been orchestrating loans to right-wing parties all over Europe, including (but hardly limited) to France. And Trump and his advisor Bannon have made no secret that they want to ally with and support the same far-right, anti-NATO, pro-Russian parties in Europe that Putin wants to see succeed. Even in just four, let alone eight, years of a Trump presidency, the damage such a coordinated effort could do to the EU and NATO as institutions should not be underestimated, especially as Russia’s successful disinformation and propaganda operations increase Putin’s standing and support across Europe.
Putin sits on Europe’s eastern border, part wolf, part vulture, both inflicting wounds and picking those wounds apart, weakening the body politic of the West. And by any standard, 2016 was a year of spectacular success, with Russia’s desired outcomes being achieved in the US, the UK, Italy, Bulgaria, and Moldova, while seeing trends favorable to its interests significantly increased in places like Germany and Austria. Furthermore, U.S. and NATO “ally” Turkey has taken a decidedly sharp anti-democratic and anti-Western plunge and is clearly cozying up to Russia.
2017 may be even better for the Kremlin, and even worse for what is still referred to as the West.
This is the new face of warfare, one in which the lines between politics and war are erased and in which Russia is dominant and ahead of everyone, and this should be terrifying all of us. I am not going to write that this is a fatal blow for the U.S. or the West, but it is a grievous one, and that it is one that the public and news media seem unable to discover or acknowledge, let alone comprehend or respond to appropriately, makes it all the more dangerous and all the more likely to happen again… and again.
© 2016 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, no republication without permission, attributed quotations welcome
Coming soon: my exploration of the paths Obama did not take that would have involved standing up to Russia
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