Nuland spoke to the intelligence panel alongside former cybersecurity coordinator J. Michael Daniel, and both said the Obama administration’s approach to countering Russia had been too fractured and too timid to compel the Kremlin to rethink its actions.
The committee is planning to issue a report on the Obama administration’s approach to threats posed by Russia, according to panel chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who said Wednesday that he had requested former FBI director James B. Comey and former deputy director Andrew McCabe return to the committee for open and closed-door testimony in advance of that report being issued.
Nuland and Daniel warned that the Trump administration was in danger of allowing foreign efforts to influence elections proceed unchecked — exposing the United States to potential interference not just from Russia, but from China and others as well.
“I think it’s fair to say that all of us in the process assumed that what was done in December-January … would be a starting point for what the incoming administration would then build on,” Nuland said, referring to sanctions imposed by the Obama administration. The Trump administration, she added, “has not launched the kind of presidentially led, whole-of-government effort that’s needed.”
Daniel said the Obama administration’s response to the Russian election threat had suffered because no one in the government “fully appreciated the scope and scale of the Russian influence operations” until well after the election was over, and technical and policy minds in the administration started comparing notes.
He said the administration never managed to link experts in government with private companies whose platforms — particularly in social media — were being exploited to further Russia’s campaign.
“We weren’t really set up then, and we aren’t really set up now, to counter information operations,” Daniel said. Nuland added that during the Obama era, the U.S. intelligence community’s tendency was “to only look at classified information.”
“The integration of open-source and classified information was not happening,” she said.
Daniel and Nuland recommended a spectrum of policy options, from having the president convene a public-private commission to coordinate potential responses to threats, to approaching cyberattacks as the United States would any other act of war.
“Concepts of proportionality and laws of war apply in cyberspace just as they do in the physical realm,” Daniel said.
Despite the broad national focus on Russian interference, both Nuland and Daniel were adamant that administration officials should not presume they have a full understanding of the tactics that were used or may be used.
“I have too much respect for that to believe we have detected all of the activity they either did do or continue to do,” Daniel said.
“We know quite a bit about” the Internet Research Agency, Nuland said, referring to the online disinformation center in St. Petersburg, which has been the focus of an indictment in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe. “What we don’t know is how many more of those there are, whether in Russia or other parts of the world.”