Obama official: 'We should have done more' on Russian interference in 2016 election

Ben Rhodes
Ben Rhodes (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images, Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Ben Rhodes, one of President Obama’s top national security advisers, acknowledged “we should have done more” to call attention to Russia’s information war during the 2016 election, noting that a much-heralded October statement from the U.S. intelligence community failed to even address a major part of the Russian attack.

“If you look at the October statement from the intelligence community, it doesn’t say anything about fake news,” Rhodes said in an interview with the Yahoo News podcast Skullduggery. “All it talks about is that the Russians hacked and release some of the material, which I think was only a small piece of their information war. … My own view is we could have done more and said more certainly about the information war and fake news dissemination.”

At the same time, Rhodes sharply criticized Facebook for not taking more aggressive steps to block Russian trolls from manipulating its platform and sharing information with the U.S. government.

“And frankly, I don’t think Facebook has had anywhere near the interaction with the government and frankly the scrutiny that is necessary to say, Look, it’s not enough to just mouth words about this,” Rhodes said. “Having your platform essentially hijacked for the purposes of a foreign adversary living in information boards is something we need to deal with just as aggressively as we dealt with ISIS using social media. And I don’t see that happening yet either.”

Rhodes’ comments — a rare on-the-record admission of a lapse by a senior Obama official — came during a discussion of his new book, “The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House.” The book recounts Rhodes’s role as a speechwriter and senior adviser throughout the Obama presidency, complete with fly-on-the-wall accounts of deliberations over the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Iran nuclear deal, the Benghazi attack that killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and other episodes.

Vladimir Putin with Barack Obama
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, speaks with U.S. President Barack Obama in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, September 2016. (Photo: Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

But in its chapter on the Obama response to the Russian attack on the election, Rhodes makes clear he bristled when he was told he was excluded from National Security Council deliberations in the summer of 2016 — purportedly because he was the White House’s designated liaison to the Clinton campaign. When he was told by his boss, Susan Rice, that he couldn’t participate in the debate over Russia, “I walked downstairs to my office and sank into my chair,” Rhodes writes in his book. “For eight years, I’d worked my way up to the place where I thought I’d always be in the room and now I was being kept out of the most important conversation of all. My mind raced with a mix of self-pity and self-blame.”

Download or subscribe on iTunes: “Skullduggery” by Yahoo News

But Rhodes suggested that his exclusion might have made a difference because he — as well as former State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki — had sought to combat how the Russians had manipulated social media during the country’s military intervention in Ukraine, flooding the world with bogus accounts of the 2014 shoot-down of Malaysian airlines Flight 17 and other developments during the crisis in that country.

Obama officials as well as the U.S. intelligence community failed to understand how the Russians were taking their playbook from the Ukraine crisis and now deploying it against the United States, Rhodes said.

“You learn in government who’s in the room kind of dictates what’s on the agenda, and not only was I not in the room,” Rhodes said during his Skullduggery interview, “nobody who focused on communications was in the room.” Instead, “our government kind of put [the Russian attack] in a box of cybersecurity. You know, they hacked something, they released it, we have to protect the election infrastructure.”

“So, I think it’s maybe not just me, but if somebody with that communication perspective had been in the room, there might’ve been more attention on this other set of capabilities that we had been living with from Ukraine for years, that they were deploying in the United States,” Rhodes said. “Because, essentially, they took their war machine that they built in Ukraine and just brought it to America in 2016.”

Whether calling more attention to the issue during the election would have made a difference is another question. When he later raised the issue with Obama directly, and told him, “We’re going to be criticized for not focusing on this,” Rhodes said the president downplayed the issue. “His belief was that, essentially, the Russians had found soft spots in our media and society such that, if we were calling that out, the people who consume that fake news aren’t going to listen to Obama anyway, Trump’s going to say it [the election] is rigged.”

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