This post has been updated.
For months, it’s been acknowledged — often quietly — that the Trump administration isn’t doing much to deter further Russian interference in U.S. elections. The Washington Post reported extensively in December about how President Trump doesn’t even like to talk about Russian interference — much less act to prevent it — and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders struggled last week to name concrete steps he had taken.
But we may have just seen our most high-profile admission yet that the U.S. government is asleep at the wheel — from the government itself.
Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, made some pretty blunt statements Tuesday to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Rogers acknowledged that Russian President Vladimir Putin probably believes he’s paid “little price” for the interference and thus hasn’t stopped. He also said flatly that Trump has not granted him any new authorities to strike at Russian cyber-operations.
Rogers’s statements were delivered rather plainly, but it became clear as the hearing progressed that he sensed a lack of drive to prevent a repeat of 2016.
“What I see on the Cyber Command side leads me to believe that if we don’t change the dynamic here, that this is going to continue, and 2016 won’t be viewed as isolated,” Rogers said. “This is something that will be sustained over time.”
He said of Russian interference: “We’re taking steps, but we’re probably not doing enough.” He said that sanctions and other measures haven’t “changed the calculus or the behavior” by Moscow. “They haven’t paid a price at least that’s sufficient to get them to change their behavior,” he added.
And in a couple of key moments, he made clear that he hasn’t been given additional authorities. After Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) asked Rogers whether he’d been authorized by either Trump or Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to do more against Russian attacks, Rogers said, “No, I have not.” After Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) sought some clarification, Rogers said he had taken extra steps within his purview, but that “I haven’t been granted any, you know, additional authorities, capacity and capability, and — no, that’s certainly true.”
At one point, Reed coaxed this telling exchange out of Rogers:
REED: But we’re — essentially, we have not taken on the Russians yet. We’re watching them intrude on our elections, spread misinformation, become more sophisticated, try to achieve strategic objectives that you have recognized, and we’re just essentially sitting back and waiting?
ROGERS: I don't know if I would characterize it as “We’re sitting back and waiting.” But I will say it's probably — and, again, I apologize, I don’t want to ...
ROGERS: ... get into the classified [information] here. It’s probably fair to say that we have not opted to engage in some of the same behaviors that we are seeing, if I could just keep it at that.
That’s very diplomatic, but it’s pretty clear what Rogers is saying. The totality of his testimony suggests that not enough is being done, and that the lack of action is likely to lead to a repeat of what happened in 2016.
Exactly what Rogers might want as far as added authorities isn’t clear — and probably wouldn’t be discussed in an unclassified briefing. But even President Barack Obama, whom Trump has criticized for not doing more to combat Russian interference, authorized the planting of cyberweapons in Russia’s infrastructure, as The Post reported in June.
In isolation, Rogers’s comments about not being given additional authorities could be viewed as simply answering a direct question. When combined with his saying “we’re probably not doing enough” and that Putin hasn’t paid enough of a price to change his behavior, it’s clear that Rogers sees something missing from the effort to prevent a repeat: willpower.
At the White House, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked why Rogers has not been granted additional authority to confront Russian hacking efforts aimed at the U.S. elections. She did not give a precise response.
“We’re focused on looking at a variety of different ways,” Sanders said.
She pointed to a State Department announcement of $40 million to support public and private efforts to combat Russian and Chinese propaganda, and a meeting that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen held with state, local and federal officials who are “working on ways that we can best prevent things like this in the future.”
Asked why those efforts have not included explicit presidential authority for Rogers to do more, Sanders replied that “nobody is denying him the authority.”
“The president is looking at all of the different causes and all of the different ways that we can prevent it. And as we find different ways that we can do that, we’re implementing them,” Sanders said.