The Obama Administration’s politicized mishandling of the Russian-orchestrated email hack of U.S. political organizations has distracted from even larger Kremlin cyber threats to American interests. Mr. Obama’s partisan clumsiness has fomented mistrust and confusion among Americans, undermining the ability of the U.S. to formulate an effective response to these dangers.
It is regrettable that the President and his associates have demonstrated more interest in using Moscow’s electoral cyber-activities to undermine the legitimacy of President-elect Trump, than in laying the foundation for an effective, long-term response to this significant, national security threat.
Mr. Obama couldn’t be bothered with involving the President-elect and Congress in a reasonable conversation about how to address Russian cyber-attacks. Instead, the Administration leaked the disputed CIA report asserting Moscow tried to help Mr. Trump win, which nicely set up the stunts to disrupt the Electoral College. In place of what would have been more statesmanlike courtesy and consultation with the incoming president, Mr. Obama displayed his customary petulant unilateralism.
Furthermore, the administration botched the delivery to Congress of the flawed CIA report, releasing it before sufficient evidence had been marshalled to support its proposition that Moscow desired to assist Trump’s election. FBI and ODNI officials contradicted the CIA estimate as soon as it was delivered, transforming the report into a public relations fiasco that raised more questions than it answered.
The peculiar timing of the President’s order for a “full review” of the Kremlin’s cyber-meddling as well as his decision to retaliate before completion of this intelligence review — particularly after neglecting for so long to take any action — likewise suggests greater interest in partisan, anti-Trump initiatives than in shutting down the Russian cyber threat.
But, the President’s focus on the claim that Moscow intended to help Trump win the election is not just unfortunate, it’s dangerous. This rhetoric trivializes the true scope and intensity of the Russian cyber threat, and has compromised the ability of the U.S. to respond effectively.
The fundamental goal of the Kremlin’s cyber-intervention in U.S. politics is to subvert national unity — to impair the U.S.’ ability to promote its interests in world affairs or interfere with the Kremlin’s strategic designs. Americans should recognize these Russian tactics as contemporary cyber manifestations of KGB Cold War operations to support and manipulate U.S. political interest groups.
An even more important lesson Americans should take from the Kremlin’s 2016 electoral mischief is that Moscow’s cyber-political operations are but one weapon in a formidable arsenal of cyber-attack capabilities Russia has developed to cripple U.S. power. Moscow possesses, and in some cases, has already used, potent cyber-attack capabilities against critical national infrastructure including the electric grid, water utilities, financial system, transportation sector, government agencies, and corporations.
Americans should take careful note that Vladimir Putin and his government view the U.S as a rival foreign power capable of thwarting Moscow’s ability to realize its national interests and have already proven themselves willing and able to wield their cyber-power.
The U.S. has badly underinvested in its cyber-defenses and has failed to develop an appropriate response to the magnitude of the threat. An effective response must prioritize vastly improved cyber-defenses, integrate diverse cyber and conventional retaliatory options to deter future attacks, and strengthen government capacities to promote cyber security.
The partisan pettiness that has characterized President Obama’s approach to the Kremlin’s cyber-electioneering has squandered a valuable opportunity to inform the American people about the gravity of the Russian cyber-threat as well as to build public support for effective countermeasures.
Now that he has been given the appropriate courtesy of a formal intelligence briefing, President-elect Trump has acknowledged the danger and indicated he will bring forward a plan to address cyber threats. Americans would do well to hope Mr. Trump’s proposal is comprehensive, bold, and unifying. Nothing could bode better for the future than reversal of the partisan rancor and dysfunction observed to date.
Dr. William J. Murphy is an Associate Professor of Social Science at the New England Institute of Technology where he teaches courses on Terrorism and National Security, American Government, and Economics. He is also a Policy Advisor with the Center for Constitutional Reform at the Heartland Institute. He can be reached at @wjmurphy2.