In his remaining time in office, perhaps the most difficult decision President Obama will face is how the United States should respond to the stunning Russian cyberattack on our electoral system: the penetration of Democratic National Committee servers and the email account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.
For an extraordinary reason, this is not something Obama can leave to his successor. Donald Trump, despite having received classified briefings on the Russian cyberthreat, has refused to accept the intelligence community’s judgment that such an attack took place. His most notable public comment about it came at the second debate with Hillary Clinton, where he tossed a word salad of doubt over the matter: “Maybe there is no hacking,” Trump said, “but they always blame Russia.”
If Obama does not act in his final weeks, it is a virtual certainty that President Trump will not act either. As the beneficiary of the hacking, and as an admirer of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, Trump would have every reason to let it slide.
Options for a response have already been outlined in a paper that has made its way to Obama’s desk. They are, of course, top secret, but back in October Vice President Biden told NBC’s Meet the Press that we would be “sending a message” to Putin, one that “will be at the time of our choosing, and under the circumstances that will have the greatest impact.”
That was tough talk, but an unfortunate axiom applies to Obama administration pronouncements: the tougher the talk, the lower the likelihood commensurate action will follow. That rule is especially likely to pertain in this instance because all the imaginable options are so unattractive.
Among other capabilities, the USCYBERCOM (the Pentagon’s cyber command) or the CIA’s Center for Cyber-Intelligence could send signals into Russian computers that could wreak destruction. Already back in the Cold War, the CIA planted “Trojan horse” computer chips in turbine technology the KGB was stealing from the West to control the flow of natural gas in Siberian pipelines. When the doctored chips performed their special task, the largest non-nuclear explosion ever seen from outer space was the result celebrated in CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
The way the world is wired today, we could undoubtedly repeat such a feat with the right sequence of key strokes on a laptop in Langley, causing major pieces of Russia’s infrastructure to fail catastrophically. But the Russians could retaliate just as easily, and they probably would. Given how computerized our economy is, we stand to lose a lot more than we would gain from engaging in such kinetic action. Mutual assured destruction (MAD) applies to the cyber-age just as it did (and does) in the nuclear age.
A non-kinetic alternative, already much discussed, is to make public some portion of the enormous trove of documents the CIA undoubtedly possesses that demonstrate massive corruption by Putin and his cronies. No doubt, this would have some salutary consequences. But every Russian already knows that the denizens of the Kremlin have pillaged the country’s treasure for personal gain. The trouble is, Russia is not a democracy and there is nothing they can do about it. The major effect of such a U.S. action would be to induce a collective yawn.
Indictments? Sanctions? Both have been employed in response to past bouts of North Korean and Chinese hacking and both would induce more yawns. Moreover, whatever punitive economic measures Obama puts in place today, President Trump could reverse on Jan. 20, 2017. Unless we settle for engaging in some petty retaliatory hacking of little moment, it would seem that we’re out of tricks. Indeed, given Biden’s swaggering threat, we might be witnessing a repeat of the Syrian chemical weapons fiasco in which Obama drew a red line, Syria promptly crossed the red line, and Obama — contemplating the unknown cost of launching a military operation — chickened out and said sorry, never mind.
Still, even if there is no effective means of retaliation, there remains one thing that the Obama absolutely must do, even if it comes at a price.