For several months, most of 2016, in fact, there has been mounting evidence that Russia interfered with the U.S. presidential election in ways designed to ensure the election of Donald Trump. Not just one, but 17 U.S. intelligence agencies1 have confirmed that there is evidence linking Russia’s government to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The F.B.I. first informed the DNC that it saw evidence that the committee’s email systems had been hacked in the fall of 2015.
President Obama ordered a full investigation into the Russian hacking earlier this month, a move that many believe should have been made much earlier in the year. Why did President Obama wait to confront the issue head-on? Part of the reason was fear of sparking a wider cyber-conflict and an attempt to save talks with Russia over Syria. But the bigger reason may have been that he did not want to give Donald Trump reason to cry foul following what most were certain would be a Hillary Clinton victory. All of which are valid reasons, and make good sense, politically. However, it may have been a mistake to wait.
Today, President Obama announced multiple sanctions against the Russian government in light of a joint report compiled by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security. The full 13-page report can be seen here.
The new measures include sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies, three companies that are believed to have provided support for government cyber operations, and four Russian cyber officials2. The administration will also shut down Russian-owned facilities in Maryland and New York that were used for intelligence activities, and would declare 35 Russian operatives “persona non grata,” who have been given 72 hours to leave the United States. Additionally, a senior administration official told reporters those actions are not the lone ones Washington implemented, signaling covert retaliation, as well.
Donald Trump has dismissed the evidence sight unseen, saying, “I think we ought to get on with our lives. I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what is going on.” (grammar lessons???) Today, however, after the announcement that the U.S. will impose sanctions, he altered his stance, but only slightly. Now he has agreed to meet with intelligence officials next week “to be updated on the facts”. In a brief written statement, Trump said, “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things. Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation.” It is almost as if he’s saying, “I think it’s silly, but okay, I’ll play the game.” The irony, of course, is that there is little doubt that Trump was aware of the Russian interference months ago.
The question becomes will Trump simply remove the sanctions after he takes office? Technically, he can reverse the sanctions with a stroke of a pen, but doing so would bring his first disagreement with Congress. Most Democrats and several key Republicans fully support the sanctions that were imposed. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell summed it up quite well: “The Russians are not our friends. Sanctions against the Russian intelligence services are a good initial step, however late in coming. As the next Congress reviews Russian actions against networks associated with the U.S. election, we must also work to ensure that any attack against the United States is met with an overwhelming response.” Then again, if he allows the sanctions to stand, he is breaking one of his campaign promises to engage in ‘warmer’ relations with Russia. It sounds to me that Trump will be between a rock and a hard place on day #1! A bed of his own making, so to speak.
Predictably, the Russian government responded to new sanctions from the US with a vaguely threatening statement condemning the move as “one last blow” to US relations with Russia. Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in the statement, “Frankly speaking, we are tired of lies about Russian hackers that continue to be spread in the United States from the very top. We can only add that if Washington takes new hostile steps, it will receive an answer.” After i finnished writing this post and was editing it, the news came across my screen that Russia just announced the closure of the American School of Moscow, and the U.S. Embassy vacation dacha in Serebryany Bor on the outskirts of Moscow, in retaliation for the sanctions.
In related news, two journalists, Jason Leopold and Ryan Shapiro, have filed a lawsuit against the CIA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence seeking records pertaining to Russia’s interference in the presidential election. They claim that the agencies have failed to comply with their request for documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Both Shapiro and Leopold are known as leading freedom of information activists and have brought countless such cases in the past. What are the odds that they will win their request? It is too early to tell, but it is almost certain that much of the information they would like will remain classified and therefore not subject to FOIA requests. There are three exclusions to the FOIA, and the third one, limited to the FBI, protects the existence of foreign intelligence or counterintelligence, or international terrorism records when the existence of such records is classified.
I applaud the efforts of President Obama in placing these additional sanctions on Russia. My fear, however, is that it is a matter of too little, too late, to have any real effect. At this point, the most that can be said is that it has certainly put Trump in a difficult position, but as usual, Trump will do whatever he wishes, and I would not be surprised to see him thumb his nose at Congress by lifting the sanctions within a few days of taking office. Time will tell.
1 The 17 agencies are: Air Force Intelligence, Army Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, Coast Guard Intelligence, Defense Intelligence Agency, Energy Department, Homeland Security Department, State Department, Treasury Department, Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Marine Corps Intelligence, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, National Security Agency, Navy Intelligence and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
2 The four Russian intelligence officials: Igor Valentinovich Korobov, the current chief of a military intelligence agency, the G.R.U., and three deputies: Sergey Aleksandrovich Gizunov, the deputy chief of the G.R.U.; Igor Olegovich Kostyukov, a first deputy chief, and Vladimir Stepanovich Alekseyev, also a first deputy chief of the G.R.U.