The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Could Obama have stopped Putin’s election interference? A new book argues he didn’t think he needed to.

David Shimer’s “Rigged” explores the history of U.S. and Russian influence operations, and the risks that remain ahead of the 2020 election.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with President Obama on the sidelines of the G20 Leaders Summit in Hangzhou on September 5, 2016. (Alexei Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images Photo illustration by Nick Kirkpatrick/The Washington Post)

RIGGED: America, Russia, and One Hundred Years of Covert Electoral Interference

By David Shimer. Knopf. 384 pp. $29.95

You may not remember it now, but a few years ago there was a huge news story all about Russia interfering in the 2016 presidential election. There were front-page scoops, official investigations, even some secret document we all insisted on calling a “dossier.” You can look it up! This was a big deal.

Then came the Ukraine whistleblower and an impeachment trial. And the coronavirus. And an economic collapse. And a national reckoning over racism. Once the dominant political story of the Trump presidency, Russia’s “meddling” — another obligatory word back then — receded from the national consciousness. (A heavily redacted and misinterpreted 448-page special counsel report didn’t help.)

Except some people won’t let it go. In his absorbing new book, “Rigged,” David Shimer argues that the Russia story is far older, and the risks to U.S. electoral security far greater, than we imagined, particularly as a new election approaches. Even more, he assembles a damning oral history of the Obama administration’s failure to deter or combat Moscow’s interference in 2016 — a failure of imagination, intelligence and resolve — as told by some of the top officials responsible for it. “We thought ourselves much too resilient to anyone trying to pull that in the United States,” former deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken tells Shimer. “We were wrong.”

Much of “Rigged” draws on archival research and interviews with former top intelligence officers from both the U.S. and Soviet sides to recount tales of electoral interference by the rival powers. Shimer, a graduate student in international relations at Oxford, begins with Moscow’s attempts early in the 20th century to spread Soviet ideology and influence, first by financing like-minded groups around the globe and, after World War II, by manipulating elections throughout Eastern Europe.

As for Washington’s efforts, Shimer notes that the first formal authorization for postwar covert action involved interference in Italy’s 1948 election. The United States declared that Italy would receive no Marshall Plan funds if the pro-Soviet coalition won, and that it would bar entry to Italians supporting the Communist Party. Covertly, the CIA funded propaganda to scare Italians about the communists, paid for get-out-the-vote campaigns and backed specific politicians. “The CIA focused on manipulating the psyches of Italian voters,” Shimer explains. When the Christian Democrats won by a comfortable margin, Washington congratulated itself on saving Italian democracy, and the operation became a template for interference elsewhere, including Latin America and Asia.

It was classic Cold War strategizing. The two sides battled for influence, and elections were how they kept score. Much as Washington believed that containing leftist candidates would uphold U.S. power, the KGB backed candidates who, if victorious, “would provide Moscow with friends abroad and talking points at home that Communism was an appealing ideology.” But the Soviets went beyond establishing a buffer in Eastern Europe and attempting to puncture Washington’s sphere of influence; they also tried to influence elections in the United States.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev sent a letter to Adlai Stevenson in 1960 urging him to run against Richard Nixon — “because we know the ideas of Mr. Stevenson, we in our hearts all favor him,” the missive explained — and in 1968, Moscow quietly offered financial support to Hubert Humphrey. Both campaigns spurned the overtures. (Unlike the Trump campaign, they didn’t “love it.”) Soviet intelligence officers tried to undermine hawkish politicians such as Nixon, Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Ronald Reagan, and sought to stage fake hate crimes in the United States because they believed that “America’s diversity was its greatest vulnerability.”

Such tactics underscore Shimer’s key point: What Vladimir Putin accomplished in 2016 was little different from what his predecessors attempted for decades. Russia’s interference four years ago was “the evolution of a practice rather than its creation,” Shimer writes. In keeping with the goals of Soviet premiers and intelligence chiefs long before, Putin wanted to subvert threatening candidates, promote friendlier ones and deepen America’s divides to discredit U.S. democracy. The difference was not the strategy the Russians used, but the power and efficacy of the tools at their disposal.

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During the Cold War, “the Kremlin lacked the means to shape public discourse, target voters on a personal basis, or reach the American population at scale.” By the 21st century, Russia’s means had caught up with its intentions. Through hacking, trolling and manipulation of social media, Putin disrupted the workings of the world’s most powerful democracy. “Newer democracies were once more vulnerable to covert electoral interference than their more established counterparts,” Shimer writes. “The internet has leveled the playing field. All democracies are exposed.”

The technology available to Putin was not the only difference; the American response also mattered. And here is where Shimer’s account is particularly newsworthy. Through an impressive array of on-the-record interviews with former high-level Obama officials, Shimer describes an administration that initially missed Russia’s threat to the integrity of the U.S. election and that, upon grasping the risks, blinked.

U.S. officials had witnessed Putin’s election interference in Eastern Europe, but they never imagined it could take place here. “You would think previously: ‘Oh, this only happens in third world countries,’ ” Jeh Johnson, who served as secretary of homeland security in President Barack Obama’s second term, admits to Shimer. Or they didn’t recognize the tools Russia was deploying. Social media information warfare was “very poorly understood” even through Election Day, former national security adviser Susan Rice explains, while Blinken confesses that “we just didn’t understand” how digital platforms were being manipulated.

Just as vital was Russia’s assessment of Washington’s potential response. “Putin aimed to push as far as he could without provoking much pushback,” Shimer writes. “And in Obama, he saw a leader elected to wind down wars, not start them, wary of stumbling into great-power conflict, and largely dismissive of Russia.” That isn’t just his conclusion; Shimer quotes several top officials by name, knocking their old boss. “This was a cautious administration in general,” David Petraeus, CIA director in Obama’s second term, tells Shimer. “It was an administration that had a redline that was crossed, and they didn’t act,” he says, referring to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. The administration “repeatedly issued fairly ringing rhetorical statements and policies and did not always back them up,” Petraeus maintains. Leon Panetta, Obama’s first CIA director and later his secretary of defense, concurs. “The more cautious [Obama] became, the more he sent a signal to adversaries that they could do things to take advantage of him.” Obama’s hesitation on Syria “was a message of weakness,” Panetta argues, “and I think Putin read it as weakness.” It is a brutal assessment from officials who saw the president up close.

Obama, who declined to be interviewed for Shimer’s book, did warn Putin against interfering, and he imposed sanctions on Russia after the election. But his reluctance to respond forcefully ahead of time flowed in part from the fear that Russian hackers could tinker with voting machinery or even manipulate vote totals. By August 2016, “the U.S. intelligence community had reported that Russian hackers could edit actual vote tallies, according to four of Obama’s senior advisers,” Shimer reports. “This revelation was a game changer. America’s electoral infrastructure was penetrable.” (You’d hope that such officials would speak out now, and not anonymously, with another presidential contest looming.)

For Obama officials, the worst-case scenario involved hackers editing voter registration data before the election, erasing voter data after the fact or even altering vote totals. Johnson feared that the Russians might manipulate voter data “in a handful of key precincts in Miami-Dade, in Dayton, Ohio, in a key precinct in Michigan, a key precinct in Wisconsin, a key precinct in Pennsylvania.” In the chaos that followed, Obama officials worried, Trump could claim to have been cheated out of victory.

Yes, all these scenarios were premised on a Hillary Clinton victory in 2016. “Anticipating that Trump would shout rigged in defeat, Obama wanted the election to appear as un-rigged as possible,” Shimer writes. So he settled for a policy of “managed interference,” the author concludes: As long as Putin didn’t mess with our election infrastructure, Russia’s social media campaign was tolerable; Obama and president-elect Clinton could deal with Putin later. Obama would therefore “win both ways,” Jon Finer, the State Department chief of staff under Secretary John Kerry, tells Shimer, recalling a prevalent attitude inside the administration. He would win by having Trump lose but also by “staying above the fray” of electoral politics. (There is a great book to be written on all the decisions that were made or avoided just because so many people assumed Clinton would win.)

During the Cold War, both sides struggled to influence the minds of voters, but today, Shimer warns, “billions of people have uploaded their psyches onto the internet, exposing them to targeted manipulation.” Did Putin’s machinations ensure Trump’s victory? “It’s a timeless question,” Shimer writes — another way of saying “who knows?” But whether the Russians truly secured Trump’s election may matter less than how they interpret the outcome.

“The degree to which Putin believes he succeeded will instruct his policy making,” Shimer writes. Favorable results encourage the interfering party to keep going. And this time, the man in the Oval Office is solicitous of Russia’s president and unconcerned, even welcoming, about foreign influence. “I don’t think the Russians are particularly frightened about what might happen to them if they try this again,” a former National Security Council official in the Trump White House tells Shimer.

Obama was too tentative. Trump is too enamored. And now, Putin may be too emboldened.

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