Despite it being the midst of the 2016 presidential election, Susan Rice, national security adviser to former President Barack Obama, ordered national security officials to “stand down” when they were planning a counterstrike to Russian meddling in the election.
The revelation was made public this week in the upcoming book “Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump” by reporters Michael Isikoff and David Corn.
When it was becoming more apparent that Russian state-hackers were behind numerous cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee, Hillary Clinton, John Podesta and every state’s voting database, staffers at the national security council began developing counterattacks meant to give Russia a taste of its own medicine, according to an excerpt of the book published in Mother Jones.
Two of those staffers were Michael Daniel, who was White House director of cybersecurity, and Celeste Wallander, the NSC’s top Russia analyst. They believed the only way to stop the cyberattacks was to hit back even harder.
They developed plans that were “more aggressive responses beyond anything the Obama administration or the US government had ever before contemplated in response to a cyberattack,” according to Mother Jones.
Some of those plans included: Dismantling websites leaking stolen information, bombarding Russian news sites with automated traffic to shut them down, and to launch an attack on Russia’s intelligence agency. Wallander even suggested targeting Russian President Vladimir Putin and his family, knowing it would get under his skin.
While Daniel and others worked hard to draft a response to Russia, top Obama aides were not on board, including Rice.
What did she do?
Mother Jones explained:
One day in late August, national security adviser Susan Rice called Daniel into her office and demanded he cease and desist from working on the cyber options he was developing. “Don’t get ahead of us,” she warned him. The White House was not prepared to endorse any of these ideas. Daniel and his team in the White House cyber response group were given strict orders: “Stand down.” She told Daniel to “knock it off,” he recalled.
Daniel walked back to his office. “That was one pissed-off national security adviser,” he told one of his aides.
At his morning staff meeting, Daniel matter-of-factly said to his team that it had to stop work on options to counter the Russian attack: “We’ve been told to stand down.” Daniel Prieto, one of Daniel’s top deputies, recalled, “I was incredulous and in disbelief. It took me a moment to process. In my head I was like, ‘Did I hear that correctly?’” Then Prieto spoke up, asking, “Why the hell are we standing down? Michael, can you help us understand?” Daniel informed them that the orders came from both Rice and Monaco. They were concerned that if the options were to leak, it would force Obama to act. “They didn’t want to box the president in,” Prieto subsequently said.
Did anything ever happen?
Not at the time. According to Obama chief of staff Denis Mcdonough, Obama’s main priority at the time was to protect the integrity of the election. He believed “confronting Putin was necessary,” but protecting America’s peaceful transition of power was even more so.
It wasn’t until October that Obama went public about the meddling. Still, he did nothing, something Obama officials have since admitted was a mistake.