On election day 2016, senior Obama administration officials were prepared for chaos. Federal law enforcement agencies planned for the possibility of riots in the wake of a contested election outcome and a special White House crisis team braced for the possibility that Russian hackers were on the verge of altering voter data in a handful of key precincts.
“The working hypothesis was that Clinton was going to win, and that [Trump] was then going to go and incite people to violence by claiming that the system was rigged,” according to Amy Pope, the former deputy homeland security adviser.
Celeste Wallander, the top Russia expert on the National Security Council at the time, wondered what would happen to a tranche of as-yet unreleased compromising material that Russian hackers had stolen—from both Republicans and “people who might serve in a Clinton administration.” Would Moscow use it in a post-election influence operation against Team Hillary?
Those revelations and others are included in a new book obtained by The Daily Beast and set to be published this week. The book, Rigged: America, Russia, and One Hundred Years of Covert Electoral Interference, is authored by David Shimer, a doctoral candidate at Oxford and a fellow at Yale, and details the century-long history of covert operations to interfere in elections. It’s based on interviews with more than 130 key players, including eight former CIA directors, 26 former advisers to Barack Obama, 11 former advisers to Donald Trump, and a former KGB general.
The book breaks news about the history of covert election interference—including the CIA’s efforts to oust the government of Slobodan Milošević in 2000— and delves deep into the Obama administration’s handling of the 2016 presidential election interference and the Trump White House’s lack of focus on preventing Russian interference in the current election.
The picture that emerges from it is of an Obama administration divided on both the nature of the threat from Russian interference and how to respond to it. The most senior Obama advisers fixated on the possibility that Russian hackers would alter the vote tallies or registration databases on election day and feared any retaliation before then would trigger an escalation. But another group of officials—those with more experience dealing with Moscow—saw a catastrophe already taking place across leaked dumps of Democratic emails, and viewed a firmer response as crucial to preventing further escalation.
Now nearly four years after the still-debated 2016 election, a number of former Clinton campaign and Obama officials say in the book that the administration’s narrow focus on the cyber-threat to election systems at the expense of a broader effort to counter Russia’s influence campaign was misguided.
“That’s where all their energy went and that’s where their warnings went to the Russians,” former Clinton campaign chairman and Obama adviser John Podesta told Shimer. “They went to the direct interference rather than this indirect interference. I think that was a mistake.”
In their defense, Obama administration officials interviewed for the book like Susan Rice, Anthony Blinken, and John Brennan, pointed to a steady stream of daily reporting indicating that Russian hackers were probing and penetrating election systems across the country. In August, according to Shimer’s reporting, the intelligence community issued warnings that Russian hackers were capable of breaking into some election systems and altering the votes.
The possibility of Russian escalation against election systems dominated the administration’s thinking and ultimate decision to postpone retaliation. “If we did that, it could have had very unknown consequences, in terms of whether or not Russia would have doubled or tripled down during the campaign,” Brennan told Shimer. The U.S. was vulnerable, according to Brennan, because Russian hackers “could have done things as far as voter registration rolls; they could have done things as far as tallies.”
But those more skeptical of Russian intentions, like Victoria Nuland and Celeste Wallander, felt those arguments let Moscow off the hook for the damage it was already doing by the summer of 2016 and only invited further mischief.
Nuland told Shimer she had sounded the alarm bells about Russian intentions for the upcoming election as early as spring of 2016 and called for the administration to use “light deniable countermeasures” against Moscow in July.
As the debate raged on how and whether to impose costs on Moscow throughout the summer, Obama’s National Security Council drew up a menu of options that the U.S. could use to push back against Russia’s nascent interference and deter further operations. The options, Wallander told Shimer, included “sanctions, information revelations, quiet private messages, louder public messages, disruption operations,” among other measures.
The option of retaliating in kind and deploying an American disinformation campaign against Russia, however, was “rejected almost immediately,” according to Blinken.
Rice claimed that retaliation against Russia was a foregone conclusion from the beginning and the only question was whether any pushback would be more productive before or after the election. And the Obama administration had drawn up a list of harsh countermeasures to use against Moscow in the event Russia tampered with the vote, according to the book.
But some officials don’t believe that the administration gave enough consideration to countermeasures while the Russian influence operation was playing out. Senior Obama officials—convinced that a Clinton victory was inevitable and focused on election network security—decided to shelve the committee’s options and wait until after the election. Wallander and White House cybersecurity coordinator Michael Daniel ignored the brushoff and instead wrote their own, more highly classified memo in August 2016 outlining ways to punish Russia through revelations about Putin’s ill-gotten wealth, vacations, and associates.
In the book, Shimer argues that the Obama administration’s narrow focus on protecting election systems at the expense of ignoring a raging influence campaign represented a profound misunderstanding of how election interference has historically been practiced. The history of covert electoral meddling, the book argues, includes efforts to both change vote tallies and influence the opinions of voters.
That’s how the U.S. and Soviet Union had historically carried out electoral interference throughout much of the Cold War. But the book also reveals that the CIA carried out one last operation to meddle in a foreign election before it turned its back on the practice.
Former President Bill Clinton told Shimer that he authorized a covert campaign in 2000 to oust Yugoslav President Slobodan Miloševic during the country’s elections that year.
“I didn’t have a problem with it,” because Miloševic—who later died while on trial in the Hague for genocide—was “a stone-cold killer and had caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people,” Clinton said. The former president defended the effort by characterizing it as a more restrained influence operation. The CIA, Clinton argued, “did not rig the vote nor knowingly lie to the voters to get them to support the people we hoped to win.” He blessed the effort because, he said: “There’s a death threshold, and Milošević crossed it.”
The operation, briefed to and approved by congressional leaders of both parties, involved “millions of dollars” handed out to Serbian opposition figures at meetings outside the country, according to former CIA officer John Sipher, whom Shimer interviewed for the book.
Three former Obama administration CIA directors quoted by Shimer ultimately cited Obama’s unwillingness to escalate against foreign adversaries to the administration’s pulled punches in the summer and fall of 2016.
Former CIA directors Leon Panetta and David Petraeus, as well as deputy director Mike Morrell, pointed to Obama’s unwillingness to forcefully respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons as contributors to the Kremlin’s belief it could interfere in the election without facing significant costs.
“That was a message of weakness, and I think Putin read it as weakness, and read it as an opportunity to be able to not only do Crimea, but to go into Syria without having anyone stop him from doing that, and thirdly then going after our election institutions as well,” Panetta is quoted as saying in the book. “I think he felt that he would be able to do it and to get away with it.”
Dennis Blair, Obama’s first director of national intelligence, was equally critical of his former boss’s handling of the Russian operation. “We needed to impose penalties and I think we needed to give a lot more information to people as to what’s going on, and it was derelict not to.”
As for the 2020 elections, former Trump administration National Security Council officials told Shimer that the president still remains hostile to acknowledging that Russia meddled in the 2016 election. One anonymous senior adviser is quoted saying Trump interprets the subject of Russian interference in 2016 as an attack on his legitimacy that causes him to go “off the reservation.”
The book also reveals that planning for the possibility that hackers could attack election systems in November doesn’t appear to be a high priority for the Trump administration Elaine Duke, Trump’s former acting homeland security secretary, told Shimer that it’s a subject that “is definitely not consuming a lot of time operationally” in the White House.