This is the second of two excerpts adapted from Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump (Twelve Books) by Michael Isikoff, Chief Investigative Correspondent for Yahoo News, and David Corn, Washington bureau chief of Mother Jones. It will be released on March 13.
“On August 4, 2016, CIA Director John Brennan spoke on the phone with Alexander Bortnikov, head of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), which was the intelligence agency that succeeded the KGB.
The phone call was one of their regularly scheduled ones, and the main subject was, once again, the civil war in Syria.
By this point, Brennan was fed up with the Russian spy chief. In the past few years, Brennan’s made no progress in defusing the Syrian crisis, despite several ongoing pleas for cooperation. After the two finished the phone call, again with no progress, Brennan addressed two other issues that were not on the official agenda…
First, Brennan raised the problem of Russia’s harassment of U.S. diplomats — an especially pressing matter at Langley after an undercover CIA officer had been beaten outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow two months earlier. The continuing mistreatment of U.S. diplomats, Brennan told Bortnikov, was “irresponsible, reckless, intolerable and needed to stop.” And, he pointedly noted, it was Bortnikov’s own FSB “that has been most responsible for this outrageous behavior.”
Then Brennan turned to an even more sensitive issue: Russia’s interference in the American election. Brennan was now aware that at least a year earlier Russian hackers had begun their cyber attack on the Democratic National Committee. “We know you’re doing this,” Brennan said to the Russian. He pointed out that Americans would be enraged to find out Moscow was seeking to subvert the election — and that such an operation could backfire. Brennan warned Bortnikov that if Russia continued this information warfare, there would be a price to pay. He did not specify the consequences.
This was the first of several warnings that the Obama administration would send to Moscow. But the question of how forcefully to respond would soon divide the White House staff, pitting the National Security Council’s top analysts for Russia and cyber issues against senior policymakers within the administration. It was a debate that would culminate that summer with a dramatic directive from Obama’s national security adviser to the NSC staffers developing aggressive proposals to strike back against the Russians: “Stand down.”
In the end, some Obama officials thought they had played a bad hand the best they could, and had succeeded in preventing a Russian disruption of Election Day. Others would ruefully conclude that they may have blown it and not done enough. Nearly two months after the election, Obama did impose sanctions on Moscow for its meddling in the election — shutting down two Russian facilities in the United States suspected of being used for intelligence operations and booting out 35 Russian diplomats and spies. The impact of these moves was questionable. Rice would come to believe it was reasonable to think that the administration should have gone further. As one senior official lamented, “Maybe we should have whacked them more.”
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