TEL AVIV — The indictment of Russian nationals and entities for alleged attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election represents a major intelligence failure on the part of the Obama administration, which was warned about the purported Russian threat since at least 2014.
According to numerous mainstream news media reports citing U.S. officials, the Obama administration did not take sufficient action to contend with the alleged Russian threat. Some former Obama administration officials described the White House as being reluctant to contend with Russia’s alleged domestic disruption plots.
The indictment in question was announced Friday by the Justice Department’s special counsel under Robert Mueller. The 37-page indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities charges that since 2013 Russian agents engaged in a campaign of deception designed to influence domestic U.S. politics and sow discord among the population. Almost the entire nearly three-year scheme took place under the Obama administration.
The cases cited in the indictment reportedly didn’t influence the election. The scheme largely involved infiltrating social media groups while posing as Americans and attempting to spread disinformation and even plan some local rallies. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein emphasized, “There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”
Still, the indictment spells out an alleged Russian attempt to engage in domestic U.S. actions aimed at some influence and disruption.
Among the many charges, the Russia nationals are accused of using fraudulent claims to apply to the Obama State Department, with two of them successfully tricking the U.S. agency into providing them with visas. Upon entering the U.S. on illicitly secured visas, the two Russians allegedly collected intelligence for their efforts.
The domestic trips during the Obama administration’s tenure were just part of the alleged Russian campaign, which began about two years before Trump officially announced his candidacy.
The indictment names an entity calling itself the Internet Research Agency, based in St. Petersburg, Russia, as serving as the main headquarters for allegedly disseminating political propaganda designed to influence domestic U.S. issues.
The Russians are accused of using the stolen identities of real U.S. citizens, including social security numbers, to interface with U.S. political groups and general voters, and impersonate grassroots activists online. They are accused of forming social media groups dedicated to topics such as Black Lives Matter, immigration and religion, and creating online groups titled, “United Muslims of America” and “Army of Jesus,” among others.
The indictment claims that in or around May 2014 – still prior to Trump’s June 16, 2015 speech announcing his candidacy and still during the Obama administration — the organization’s strategy included interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with the stated goal of “spreading distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.”
Starting in February 2016, Internet Research Agency workers were told whom to support, with the indictment quoting a directive to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump — we support them).”
The agenda seems to have been to sow discord and not simply support one candidate. The indictment shows that after the election, the alleged Russian operation began engaging in anti-Trump activism, including using false U.S. personas to organize “Trump is not my President” rallies.
The document charges that the Russians stole the identities of U.S. persons to deceptively “communicate with unwitting members, volunteers and supporters of the Trump campaign involved in local community outreach.” Specifically, the Russian nationals allegedly impersonated American grassroots activists to distribute pro-Trump material and communicate with “Trump campaign staff” involved in local community outreach for “Florida Goes Trump” grassroots rallies.
The Russians’ alleged ability to carry out their reported campaign virtually unimpeded represents a major failure on the part of the Obama administration, which was repeatedly warned about the Russia threat and apparently took little action.
An extensive Politico article from last August was titled, “Obama team was warned in 2014 about Russian interference.” The piece cites “more than half a dozen current and former officials.”
Politico reported on the many warnings to the Obama administration about possible Russian meddling:
The Obama administration received multiple warnings from national security officials between 2014 and 2016 that the Kremlin was ramping up its intelligence operations and building disinformation networks it could use to disrupt the U.S. political system, according to more than half a dozen current and former officials.
As early as 2014, the administration received a report that quoted a well-connected Russian source as saying that the Kremlin was building a disinformation arm that could be used to interfere in Western democracies. The report, according to an official familiar with it, included a quote from the Russian source telling U.S. officials in Moscow, “You have no idea how extensive these networks are in Europe … and in the U.S., Russia has penetrated media organizations, lobbying firms, political parties, governments and militaries in all of these places.”
That report was circulated among the National Security Council, intelligence agencies and the State Department via secure email and cable in the spring of 2014 as part of a larger assessment of Russian intentions in Ukraine, the official said.
Politico cited numerous officials expressing the view that the Obama administration did not do enough to contend with Russia’s alleged domestic plans:
But others in the national security community say an overly cautious Obama White House could have done more both during the campaign and in the previous months and years to alert Russia that it was aware of its intentions to subvert the U.S. democracy — along with those of some other Western countries — and would retaliate forcefully at the first sign of Russian interference.
POLITICO spoke with more than a dozen current and former officials from across the national security spectrum, including intelligence agencies, the State Department and the Pentagon. Almost all said they were aware of Russia’s aggressive cyberespionage and disinformation campaigns — especially after the dramatic Russian attempt to hack Ukrainian elections in 2014 — but felt that either the White House or key agencies were unwilling to act forcefully to counter the Russian actions.
The news agency cited five officials as charging the Obama administration was reluctant to, as Politico characterized it, “engage in more forceful counterintelligence strategies against the Kremlin, including more aggressively tracking and tailing Russian operatives within the United States.”
A former senior Obama administration official put it more bluntly, telling the Washington Post that “I feel like we sort of choked,” referring to the Obama administration’s response to alleged Russian meddling. The official referred to that period as “the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend.”
Following the Mueller indictments, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) said his committee repeatedly warned the U.S. government about Russian meddling attempts, but the Obama administration “failed to act on the Committee’s warnings.”
The House Intelligence Committee has been investigating these threats for many years: in 2014—the year the Russians began their operation targeting the 2016 elections—I warned about Russia’s worldwide influence operations. In April 2016 I stated that the United States’ failure to predict Putin’s plans and intentions is “the biggest intelligence failure that we’ve had since 9/11.” Although the Obama Administration failed to act on the Committee’s warnings, it’s gratifying to see that Russian agents involved in these operations have now been identified and indicted.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel charged the indictment shows the Obama administration lost “sight of Russia.”
“These indictments are very telling that the Obama administration lost sight of Russia during their tenure,” McDaniel said in an interview with Fox News host Neil Cavuto on Friday. “I look back at 2012 when Mitt Romney said, ‘Hey, our biggest geopolitical foe is Russia,’ and President Obama laughed at him,” McDaniel stated.
Trump himself expressed similar views in a series of tweets over the weekend:
Now that Adam Schiff is starting to blame President Obama for Russian meddling in the election, he is probably doing so as yet another excuse that the Democrats, lead by their fearless leader, Crooked Hillary Clinton, lost the 2016 election. But wasn’t I a great candidate?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 18, 2018
Funny how the Fake News Media doesn’t want to say that the Russian group was formed in 2014, long before my run for President. Maybe they knew I was going to run even though I didn’t know!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2018
Finally, Liddle’ Adam Schiff, the leakin’ monster of no control, is now blaming the Obama Administration for Russian meddling in the 2016 Election. He is finally right about something. Obama was President, knew of the threat, and did nothing. Thank you Adam!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 18, 2018
Aaron Klein is Breitbart’s Jerusalem bureau chief and senior investigative reporter. He is a New York Times bestselling author and hosts the popular weekend talk radio program, “Aaron Klein Investigative Radio.” Follow him on Twitter @AaronKleinShow. Follow him on Facebook.
Written with additional research by Joshua Klein.