Officials in President Barack Obama’s administration along with national intelligence leaders were dismissive of the warning that the Kremlin was building a disinformation arm that could be used to interfere in Western democracies.
According to a Politico report, the Obama administration had many warnings between 2014 and 2016 that Russia was stepping up its intelligence operations to build propaganda networks.
“You have no idea how extensive these networks are in Europe … and in the U.S., Russia has penetrated media organizations, lobbying firms, political parties, governments and militaries in all of these places,” a Russian source said, according to a 2014 report.
While there wasn’t a specific or explicit warning in the report, a former White House official revealed that the Obama administration noticed an uptick in disinformation coming out of Russia. There were harsher warnings after Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian elections in 2014.
“Even if the Russians and [Russian president Vladimir] Putin had these ambitions, they were doubtful of their capacity to execute them,” the official told Politico.
President Donald Trump also blamed Obama for the Russian election hacks, going so far as to claim it was he that colluded with Russia.
“Well I just heard today for the first time that Obama knew about Russia a long time before the election, and he did nothing about it,” Trump told Fox News in a June interview. He was responding to a Washington Post report that first revealed the inside information. “But nobody wants to talk about that. The CIA gave him information on Russia a long time before they even – before the election…It’s an amazing thing. To me – in other words, the question is, if he had the information, why didn’t he do something about it? He should have done something about it. But you don’t read that. It’s quite sad.”
While Trump criticizes Obama, he has yet to do anything about the Russian intrusion.
Ned Price, the former spokesperson for the National Security Council, told Politico that the administration did not ignore any of the warnings, far from it.
“The Obama administration was nothing but proactive in responding to Russian aggression in all of its forms, especially as Moscow became more brazen with and following its military moves against Ukraine beginning in 2014,” Price said. He cited the sanctions against Russia and an increase in NATO support.
Still, there was no public warning that came from the government to political parties or news media. Former CIA Director John Brennan said that this was a first for the U.S. and they were cautious in dealing with it. “There was no playbook for this,” he told the Aspen National Forum.
“[Intelligence officials] had a list of things they could never get the sign-offs on,” one intelligence official who wanted to remain anonymous told Politico. “The truth is, nobody wanted to piss off the Russians.”
The proposals included closing the Russian compounds and expelling diplomats were some of the recommendations that were ultimately enacted by the U.S. after the interference in the 2016 election. The U.S. also finally began engaging in counterintelligence efforts to demonstrate a willingness to fight back against Putin.
“The options were being discussed. They weren’t being implemented,” a former official claimed.
However, it was the State Department (under Secretary John Kerry) the Pentagon that refused harsher tactics encouraged by the intelligence community, another official said. It was feared that such actions would have made diplomatic staff and defense attaches a target.
“The reports from sources deep inside the Russian government were alarming,” an official still serving in the U.S. government told Politico. “We started getting stuff in April, May  that was extraordinary about the extent of the threat and the capacities the Russians were building.”
Another former Obama official said that they feared Putin would “test” them.
Still, the Obama administration was reluctant to go into full attack mode with strong counterintelligence measures.
“It just seemed like it was difficult, especially after the Crimea and the Ukraine … there still wasn’t a willingness to more heartily engage in the effort,” a former intelligence officer told Politico.
A former NSC official said that for a long time Kerry refused to even consider shutting down the Russian compounds in the U.S. Kerry’s representative disagreed, saying he wanted to shut down the dachas but hadn’t settled on the timing.
By the summer of 2016, days before the DNC emails were released, a CIA officer was brutally beaten outside of a U.S. embassy in Moscow. The Obama administration was given multiple options to retaliate, but chose to do nothing right away.
“There was some real anger,” said a former intelligence officer. “We weren’t going to mug anybody, but we could at least be more overt in our coverages. We could expel some people, we could do more overt surveillance on people.”
Another officer explained that the longer they waited the harder Russia pushed back. In previous reports, after the release of the emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the White House feared reacting would look political. Intelligence crafted a list of more than 100 Russian diplomats that could be expelled, but national security agencies pushed back.
“Any of these actions risked a Russian reciprocation,” said the former NSC official. “We were kind of caught in a catch-22.”
The official explained that for months nothing was done. Finally after the election, they acted on 35 Russian diplomats. While the move was largely symbolic, for intelligence officers, Politico explained that it was too little and far too late.
The frustration of many intelligence officers continues as Trump’s bluster seems bigger than his bite. They see his election as an inevitable outcome of years of counterintelligence failures and inaction.
“They were warned. They underestimated it until it was too late,” the current administration official said of the Obama White House and Russia, with a tinge of bitterness. “They just didn’t know how to deal with the bad guys.”