Obama Needs His Osama Strategy For Russian Hacking

by Jon Hecht

On Thursday, months after the White House first raised concerns about Russian tampering with the election, the Obama administration officially sanctioned Russia for its alleged hacking of Democratic party operatives. The administration is expelling 35 Russian operatives from the United States and shutting down Russian compounds in Maryland and New York, according to a press release from the White House. To many, the actions seem aimed at not only punishing Vladimir Putin's government, but boxing in the incoming Trump administration, which has been notably skeptical of accounts of Russia's hacking, and far friendlier towards Putin than many Washington foreign policy experts (in both parties) would like.

Arguably, it's the most powerful response the United States has ever made in reaction to cyber-hacking, and it comes with support from a wide-range of government leaders, including Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan. The administration coupled the announcement with the release of information compiled by intelligence services and the Department of Homeland Security, detailing how the hacks occurred, what groups were involved, and how agencies and individuals can protect themselves from future attacks.

However, none of this is enough.

The Obama administration's actions send a powerful message that they are serious. They make it clear that the outgoing administration will not tolerate any further actions by Russia against the American election process. But that administration has only 22 days left with an ability to influence American foreign policy, and the incoming president, when asked just Wednesday about retaliation for the hacks, waved the whole thing off. President-elect Trump merely said, "I think we ought to get on with our lives" and that "computers have complicated lives very greatly."

The crazy thing is that Trump has good reason to just ignore the alleged hacks. He spent much of the 2016 election praising Putin, and denied any evidence of Russian involvement when it was brought up during a presidential debate, despite having received intelligence briefings outlining the Intelligence Community's view that Russia was involved. He won anyway.

According to a YouGov poll published this week, 80 percent of Trump's supporters doubt that Russia hacked Democratic party operatives to help him win. When the CIA announced that they had determined Russia was trying to help Trump, Trump responded by saying the CIA didn't know anything anyway.

Trump isn't alone in doubting. Glenn Greenwald, a journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize for publishing much of the leaks of Edward Snowden, has taken issue with the way that proof of Russian interference has been based on the word of intelligence agencies rather than hard evidence. He lamented in a piece, "There is still no such evidence for any of these claims. What we have instead are assertions, disseminated by anonymous people, completely unaccompanied by any evidence, let alone proof."

If President Obama wants to punish Russia, he must force the incoming administration's hand and make Trump punish Russia. The only way to do that is to convince the American people, beyond any doubt, of Russia's involvement in the DNC and Podesta hacks. The sanctions and releases by the Department of Homeland Security do not do that — no press release or statement can be expected to do that.

When President Obama announced that his administration had killed Osama Bin Laden, he announced it on all the major networks, with a speech directly to the American people. For an action that, I believe, has just as much potential impact for Americans' security, he should have done the same. If his administration can not publicized the full intelligence report for reasons of sensitivity, Obama should, at the very least, stand in front of the American people, flanked on his sides by the Speaker of the House, the Senate Majority Leader, directors of the CIA and FBI, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the Secretary of Defense.

This action would be wholly unprecedented by an American president, but we live in unprecedented times, and perhaps, ones that call for more decisive and dramatic action. If the Russians have truly hacked America's election process, the incoming administration must be prepared to deal with it; anything less is ambiguity. And if we've learned one thing over the rise of Trump, it's that ambiguity is his home turf.