‘Stand Down’: How The Obama Team Blew The Response To Russian Meddling

This is the second of two excerpts adapted from Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump (Twelve Books) by Michael Isikoff, Chief Investigative Correspondent for Yahoo News, and David Corn, Washington bureau chief of Mother Jones. It will be released on March 13.

CIA Director John Brennan was angry. On Aug. 4, 2016, he was on the phone with Alexander Bortnikov, head of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the intelligence agency that succeeded the KGB. The phone call was one of their regularly scheduled ones, the main subject once again the horrific civil war in Syria. By this point, however, Brennan had had it with the Russian spy chief. For the past few years, Brennan’s pleas for cooperation in defusing the Syrian crisis had gone nowhere. And after they finished discussing Syria — again with no progress — Brennan brought up two other issues not on the official agenda.

First, Brennan raised the problem of Russia’s harassment of U.S. diplomats — an especially pressing matter at Langley after an undercover CIA officer had been beaten outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow two months earlier. The continuing mistreatment of U.S. diplomats, Brennan told Bortnikov, was “irresponsible, reckless, intolerable and needed to stop.” And, he pointedly noted, it was Bortnikov’s own FSB “that has been most responsible for this outrageous behavior.”

Then Brennan turned to an even more sensitive issue: Russia’s interference in the American election. Brennan was now aware that at least a year earlier Russian hackers had begun their cyberattack on the Democratic National Committee. We know you’re doing this, Brennan said to the Russian. He pointed out that Americans would be enraged to find out Moscow was seeking to subvert the election — and that such an operation could backfire. Brennan warned Bortnikov that if Russia continued this information warfare, there would be a price to pay. He did not specify the consequences.

Bortnikov, as Brennan expected, denied Russia was doing anything to influence the election. This was, he groused, Washington yet again scapegoating Moscow. Brennan repeated his warning. Once more Bortnikov claimed there was no Russian meddling. But, he added, he would inform Russian President Vladimir Putin of Brennan’s comments.

This was the first of several warnings that the Obama administration would send to Moscow. But the question of how forcefully to respond would soon divide the White House staff, pitting the National Security Council’s top analysts for Russia and cyber issues against senior policymakers within the administration. It was a debate that would culminate that summer with a dramatic directive from Obama’s national security adviser to the NSC staffers developing aggressive proposals to strike back against the Russians: “Stand down.”

At the end of July — not long after WikiLeaks had dumped over 20,000 stolen DNC emails before the Democratic convention — it had become obvious to Brennan that the Russians were mounting an aggressive and wide‑ranging effort to interfere in the election. He was also seeing intelligence about contacts and interactions between Russian officials and Americans involved in the Trump campaign. By now, several European intelligence services had reported to the CIA that Russian operatives were reaching out to people within Trump’s circle. And the Australian government had reported to U.S. officials that its top diplomat in the United Kingdom had months earlier been privately told by Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos that Russia had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. By July 31, the FBI had formally opened a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump’s campaigns ties to Russians, with sub-inquiries targeting four individuals: Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman; Michael Flynn, the former Defense Intelligence Agency chief who had led the crowd at the Republican convention in chants of “Lock her up!”; Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser who had just given a speech in Moscow; and Papadopoulos.