A former hacker for the National Security Agency says the Obama administration failed to do its job when confronted with intelligence that showed Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election.
“They were so busy thinking about retaliation and secrecy that they were not doing the thing that would make a difference,” the source told Business Insider on condition of anonymity, given the sensitive nature of their work with Tailored Access Operations, the NSA’s elite hacking unit.
A bombshell report published Friday by The Washington Post, which focused on the timeline of Russian hacking and how the Obama administration responded, revealed that the White House struggled with keeping the matter closely held, and did not respond in any substantive way until the election had ended, despite knowledge of Kremlin ties to the hackers being revealed months prior.
“It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend,” a senior Obama administration official told The Washington Post. “I feel like we sort of choked.”
The NSA hacker was highly critical of how the White House responded, especially the timing of it, which the Post report showed came five months after Obama first learned that Russian President Vladimir Putin was deeply involved in election interference efforts.
“The government is fully aware that election voting systems are being targeted and implanted,” the source said. “And they just sent it around in paper memos to each other.”
Still, officials tried to offer assistance to states to harden voting systems and briefed members of Congress, though both moves quickly became partisan fights over the veracity of the Russian hacking claim. Obama himself was hesitant to take swift action due to a perception that such a move would play into the narrative formed by then-candidate Donald Trump, who was warning that the election was “rigged,” the Post reported.
But as president, Obama could have taken a similar approach to John F. Kennedy – revealing classified photographs that proved the Soviets were bringing missiles to Cuba in 1962 – or Ronald Reagan, who ordered the release of classified radio intercepts proving the Soviets had knowingly shot down a civilian airliner in 1983, the source said.
“It’s the president’s job to protect our democratic system,” the source continued. “That is his fundamental duty.”
The argument often made against such disclosures that would stamp out any doubt of Russian hacking efforts is that they would reveal sensitive sources and methods. If Obama made public the technical data the intelligence community had, such as IP addresses, web servers, and software used, Russia would then change its tactics in response and the US would lose access to that intelligence.
But that argument doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, the NSA source said, given the rapid pace of technological change and the seemingly endless ways that intelligence can be collected nowadays. When President Kennedy made top secret spy plane photos taken over Cuba public, it was clear there was only one place where they came from.
“You’ve gotta strike when the iron’s hot. If you have that serious critical stuff that’s going to impact an election,” the source said. “It’s crazy. They’re just totally failing to do their jobs.”
The source added: “The point of the intelligence community is not to protect its implants,” the hacker said, mentioning a term for a backdoor into a targeted network. “It’s to inform the decision makers.”
The hacker gave an interesting analogy to demonstrate what they called the “greatest intelligence failure since 9/11.”
If a South American country started bringing the Zika virus onto American shores, the hacker said, would the CDC worry about fingering the country responsible for the outbreak, or try to quickly figure out how to protect people from it?
“You don’t wait until the epidemic is killing everyone,” the source said.