On Russian Hacking, Obama Complains About Media and GOP, but Lets FBI off the Hook

We still do not know the extent of Russian hacking.

Photo Credit: cspan.org

There’s plenty of evidence, with more to come, that Vladimir Putin directed Russian cyber-espionage to target Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, President Obama said Friday in a press conference in which he also chided the mainstream media and Republicans for obsessing over the stolen emails and their gossipy content.

But Obama would not give specifics, nor would he publicly criticize the FBI's 11th-hour intervention in the campaign that deeply damaged Clinton's momentum.  

“What I want to make sure of is [that] I give the intelligence community the chance to gather all of the information,” Obama said, when asked about Putin and referencing the intelligence agency review he ordered to be done before he leaves office. “But I’d make a larger point, which is, not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin. This is a pretty hierarchical operation.”

President Obama’s comments came amid a reflective press conference that began by summing up his presidency's achievements. But most of his remarks focused on Russian meddling, which has come under increased scrutiny in recent days. Clinton campaign chair John Podesta has said the FBI is “deeply broken” for its double standard, which had the agency downplaying the Russian interference that helped Donald Trump while exaggerating security concerns over Clinton’s use of a private email server while Secretary of State.
 
Nonetheless, Obama defended his administration’s response, which he detailed as publicly neutral but privately stern with Russia. Obama said it was important to set that example, even if much of the media and Donald Trump do not follow his cues.

“I wanted to make sure that everyone understood that we were playing this thing straight, that we weren’t trying to advantage one side or another,” Obama said. “What we were trying to do was let people know that this had taken place, and so if you started seeing effects on the election, if you were trying to measure why this was happening, and how you should consume the information that was being leaked, then you might want to take this into account. And that’s exactly how we should have handled it. Imagine if we’d done the opposite.”

Obama continued, leading to his criticism of the media and Trump. “Part of the goal here was making sure that we did not do the work of the leakers for them by raising more and more and more questions about the integrity of elections before the election was taking place—at a time, by the way, when the president-elect himself was raising questions about the integrity of the election.”

He returned to that point many times, saying mainstream media took Russia’s bait and acted as a propaganda arm by obsessing over it—including publishing trivialities like Podesta’s risotto recipe. Meanwhile, Obama said he was concerned that Russia would interfere in the voting process and said he warned Putin to back off when he saw him in China last September.

“I felt that the most effective way to make sure that didn’t happen was to talk to him directly,” Obama said. “I told him to cut it out or there would be some serious consequences if he didn’t. And in fact, we did not see further tampering of the election process, other than the leaks through Wikileaks that already occurred.”

Obama would not give any ground on the FBI’s mishandling of political investigations, namely, director James Comey’s high-profile comments less than two weeks before Election Day about Clinton’s use of a private email server and contrasting silence on how Russia was helping Republicans and Trump. In fact, only late this week did the FBI say it agreed that Russian meddling helped Trump—something the CIA had concluded in a secret report earlier this year. (Trump was quick to criticize that report, saying the CIA has made many big intelligence mistakes, which many progressives may also agree with.)

“With respect to the FBI, I will tell you that I have had a chance to know a lot of FBI agents. I know Director Comey. They take their job seriously, they work really hard, they help keep us safe, and save a lot of lives,” President Obama said, backing away from any criticism of Comey. “It is always a challenge for law enforcement when there’s an intersection between the work that they are doing and the political system.”

“One thing that I have done is to be pretty scrupulous about not weighing in to investigation decisions or prosecution decisions or decisions not to prosecute,” he continued. “I have tried to be really strict in my own behavior about preserving the independence of law enforcement, free from my own judgment and political assessments… I don’t know [why] I would stop now.”

That was not the only response that is likely to disappoint Clinton supporters. Obama also said that while he has threatened to take action against Russia for meddling in American elections, he could not disclose what those steps would be because that would reveal intelligence secrets.

“When you are talking about cybersecurity, a lot of it is classified and we're not going to provide it,” he said, “because the way we catch folks is by knowing certain things about them that they may not want us to know, and if we're going to monitor this stuff effectively going forward, we don't want them to know that we know. So, this is one of those situations where, unless the American people genuinely think that the professionals in the CIA, the FBI, our entire intelligence infrastructure—many of whom, by the way, served in previous administrations and who are Republicans—are less trustworthy than the Russians, then people should pay attention to what our intelligence agencies say.”

That point led Obama to again slam the mainstream media for its trivial campaign coverage and assail Republicans for fomenting hatred of Democrats.     

“This is part of what I meant when I said we’ve got to think about what’s happening to our political culture,” Obama said. “The Russians can’t change us or significantly weaken us. They are a smaller country. They are a weaker country. Their economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil and gas and arms. They don’t innovate. But they can impact us if we lose track of who we are. They can impact us if we abandon our values. Mr. Putin can weaken us just like he's trying to weaken Europe if we start buying into notions that it's okay to intimidate the press, or lock up dissidents, or discriminate against people.”

“And what I worry about, more than anything, is the degree to which because of the fierceness, because of the partisan battle, you start to see certain folks in the Republican Party and Republican voters suddenly finding a [Russian] government and individuals who stand contrary to everything that we stand for as being okay, because 'that's how much we dislike Democrats'.”

In many respects, Obama’s harshest critique was aimed at the extremist Republicans who gave Putin’s minions a road map to exploit in the presidential election.

“To the extent that our political dialogue is such where everything is under suspicion, and everybody is corrupt, and everybody is doing things for partisan reasons, and all of our institutions are, you know, full of malevolent actors, if that's the storyline that is being put out there by whatever party is out of power, then when a foreign government introduces that same argument, with facts that are made up, voters who have been listening to that stuff for years, who have been getting that stuff every day from talk radio or other venues, they're going to believe it,” he said. “So if we want to really reduce foreign influence on our elections, then we had better think about how to make sure that our political process, our political dialogue is stronger than it has been.”

Obama’s criticism of how Republican extremism dovetails with Russian hacking and political propaganda efforts was spot-on, and was also confirmed by the reaction of Congress this week to the latest disclosures of Russian involvement in the election. The Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, reluctantly agreed to investigate the affair. For years, his top priority has been to block President Obama at every turn—even when it has led to siding with the Russians to win the election.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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