10 factors making Russia election interference the most enduring scandal of the Obama era

10 factors making Russia election interference the most enduring scandal of the Obama era
© Getty Images

There’s at least one conclusion on which there’s largely bipartisan agreement: Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election. No vote tallies were changed, according to Obama administration intel analyses, but the interference was serious enough that many insist drastic steps must be taken to avoid a repeat in 2020.

Now, with special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE’s exhaustive investigation over and no Trump official charged with taking part in any Russki scheme, Russian election interference may turn out to be the most persistent scandal of the Obama era.

To date, it’s also one of the most puzzling.

ADVERTISEMENT

Depending on which set of facts we examine, Russian interference was alternately foreseeable and unpredictable; expected, yet surprising.

The official reaction to it has begun to unfold as a Keystone Cops-type response by top Obama intel officials. They appear to have been so distracted by political motivations that they lost sight of the very danger they now claim threatens our democracy.

Here are 10 reasons why Russia election interference seems set to become the most enduring scandal of the Obama administration.

  1. Missed opportunity. Perhaps the best shot at disrupting Russian interference came as early as fall 2015. That’s when the FBI supposedly detected successful efforts by Russian hackers to breach Democratic National Committee (DNC) computers. For reasons unknown, the systems and others remained vulnerable to further attacks.

By July 2016, the DNC and FBI both had concluded Russians were responsible for additional hacks. Yet, the DNC reportedly refused to allow the FBI to examine its servers and data in a timely fashion and — for reasons unexplained — the FBI failed to confiscate them. Obviously, when national security is at stake, the FBI does not need permission to examine evidence. A senior law enforcement official told CNN the DNC’s withholding of crucial evidence “caused significant delays and inhibited the FBI from addressing the intrusion earlier.” If the FBI (then led by Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyHannity invites Ocasio-Cortez to join prime-time show for full hour The Hill's 12:30 Report: Acosta under fire over Epstein plea deal White House repeatedly blocks ex-aide from answering Judiciary panel questions MORE) had acted quickly and definitively to examine the evidence, could that have prevented further interference?

  1. Denial. On Oct. 18, 2016, President Obama made a comment that rivals his “ISIS is the jayvee team” remark in terms of its wrongheadedness. He declared that “no serious person” would suggest America’s elections could be rigged. “There's no evidence that that has happened in the past or that there are instances in which that will happen this time,” said Obama.

At the time, the president was addressing a reporter’s question about voter fraud. But it’s significant to note that he offered this answer smack dab in the middle of the supposed Russia targeting of our election process. His failure to take the obvious opportunity to address this vulnerability implies he did not fully appreciate the threat, or was unwilling to confront it. Instead, he left the impression that the U.S. election process is impenetrable and outside interference is impossible.

ADVERTISEMENT

Obama also infamously mocked Republican nominee Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - Trump attack on progressive Dems draws sharp rebuke Republicans make U-turn on health care House Republicans dismissive of Paul Ryan's take on Trump MORE in 2012 when Romney suggested Russia was a foe to be reckoned with. This begs the question of whether problems could have been staved off if the president had taken Russia more seriously.

  1. Inadequate response. Actions that President Obama and his top intel officials did take to mitigate Russian interference proved woefully inadequate. After telling reporters that Russian intelligence operatives attacked Democrats’ computer systems, then-CIA Director John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanA brief timeline of Trump's clashes with intelligence director Dan Coats Trump critic Brennan praises his Iran decision: I 'applaud' him Schumer: Trump must get congressional approval before any military action against Iran MORE and his colleagues “privately warned their Russian counterparts not to persist with their active measures” and “Obama himself told Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinJuan Williams: GOP in a panic over Mueller A brief timeline of Trump's clashes with intelligence director Dan Coats Overnight Defense: House approves 3 billion defense bill | Liberal sweeteners draw progressive votes | Bill includes measure blocking Trump from military action on Iran MORE not to interfere in the election.” CNN notes: “These warnings did not work.”
  1. Failure to disclose. Obama intel officials secretly told the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that Russia was targeting the Trump campaign, but paradoxically kept the information secret from the Trump campaign. Experts say legitimate efforts to protect national security typically would include notifying the supposed target of the spying. Intel officials arguably should have alerted all the political campaigns and warned them to be on the lookout, asking if any suspicious contacts had been made.

Recall the FBI had notified the DNC earlier, after determining it had been targeted by Russians. The decision not to likewise loop in the Trump campaign regarding the supposed targeting suggests intel officials were not focused on protecting national security but hoping to entrap Trump campaign officials.

  1. Targeting Trump. Instead of going after the Russians and working to protect the Trump campaign from possible infiltration, intel officials targeted the Trump campaign. They applied for numerous secret wiretaps to surveil Trump associates. In the process, they apparently violated strict FBI Woods Procedures designed to prevent false or unverified information from being used to obtain wiretaps.
  1. Suspicious timing. Russia’s election interference certainly was not new on election day. Yet only after Trump was elected (instead of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump complains of 'fake polls' after surveys show him trailing multiple Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton responds to Trump tweets telling Dem lawmakers to 'go back' to their countries The Young Turks' Cenk Uygur: Here's how to choose a president MORE) did President Obama assign his intel officials to issue a public report about Russia’s scheme. And only then did he pursue punishment, including sanctions and expulsion of some Russian diplomats from the United States.
  1. Blame game. After Trump was elected, some of the very Obama officials who failed to prevent Russian interference began a campaign of media leaks and deflection, pointing to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Camerota clashes with Trump's immigration head over president's tweet LA Times editorial board labels Trump 'Bigot-in-Chief' Trump complains of 'fake polls' after surveys show him trailing multiple Democratic candidates MORE and his associates. These officials included FBI Director Comey, CIA Director Brennan, Director of National Intelligence James ClapperJames Robert ClapperA brief timeline of Trump's clashes with intelligence director Dan Coats New study suggests Trump's 2016 poll numbers rose after increased Russian troll farm tweets Trump raises 2020 stakes by elevating North Korea, China on agenda MORE, national security adviser Susan Rice and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha PowerSamantha Jane Power'Unmasker in Chief' Samantha Power spewed anti-Trump bias in government emails 10 factors making Russia election interference the most enduring scandal of the Obama era 'Dear Attorney General Barr': Advice from insiders MORE.
  1. Ignorance. As they investigated foreign interference, intel officials apparently overlooked the role of interests besides the Russians, including Russia’s adversary Ukraine and the British. Ex-British spy Christopher Steele built and peddled the anti-Trump “dossier.” Former U.K. ambassador to Russia Sir Andrew Wood had a November 2016 meeting with Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain argues with Andrew Yang about free marriage counseling proposal Veterans groups hand out USS John McCain shirts on National Mall during Trump speech Trump is still on track to win reelection MORE in Nova Scotia, where Wood told him about Steele’s anti-Trump dossier.
  1. Russia’s link to FBI and Democrats. The FBI overlooked the apparent, admitted “collusion” between Steele and Kremlin-connected Russians who provided opposition research against Trump — some of it false — for the dossier. Then, the FBI used the Kremlin-connected Russian research, in part, to obtain wiretaps against Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

Why will Russia election interference in 2016 prove to be more enduring than other scandals? A great deal of money and effort has been spent to dismiss other scandals along partisan lines. In this case, people in both political parties agree the interference happened — and that it happened on Obama’s watch. His intel officials appear to have been either distracted, conflicted or asleep at the switch.

Whatever the case, they were inarguably ineffective.

Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times best-sellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program, “Full Measure.”