The FBI learned Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee back in the summer of 2015. In the spring of 2016, security agencies became aware there was a broader Russian campaign to meddle in the U.S. election. By the summer, they had determined what it looked like.
“Their first objective was to undermine the credibility and integrity of the U.S. electoral process. They were trying to damage Hillary Clinton,” said former CIA Director John Brennan speaking at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen Wednesday morning. “They thought she would be elected, and they wanted her bloodied by the time she was going to be inaugurated and they were also trying to promote the prospects of Mr. Trump,”
Also clear to Brennan and his national security colleagues at the time: Russian President Vladmir Putin had authorized the campaign. (“We have our ways,” Brennan said, when asked how they had come to that conclusion.)
That the U.S. government held such intelligence and didn’t respond to Russia more aggressively before the election has baffled and angered many, but Brennan defended the Obama Administration’s approach, saying anything more may have made things worse. He explained:
In terms of cyber doctrine which you can do, you could have a symmetric cyber strike—there are things you can do [like release all of Putin’s financial records]—but the consideration is, is that going to be purely punitive and going to lead into an escalatory cycle in the middle of a presidential campaign?
And then it gets worse and then the Russians do more, which really calls into question the credibility and integrity of the election in November. We’re trying to do everything possible to stop them, but not allow it to be a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of what the Russians were trying to accomplish.
He added that while America has cyber capabilities that match those of Russia and other more aggressive states, the government is thoughtful about when and how best to deploy them. (One consideration: businesses and citizens can become targets in escalating cyber warfare.) In any case, he said, “I don’t believe that anything we would have done would have stopped the Russians from doing these activities.”
Because of all that, hearing Trump refer to meeting Putin as a “great honor” several made Brennan’s “blood boil a bit.” As for the ongoing investigation into the current Administration’s dealings with Russia in the run-up to the election and Trump’s repeated denial of them, Brennan said only, “He said things. I knew things….I’m not going to pulse one against the other.” (Though he’s not involved, he says the FBI will be looking for evidence of three things: collusion, obstruction of justice and financial irregularities.)
Brennan was more forthcoming on the topic of whether the President has damaged the nation’s intelligence agencies by repeatedly challenging the findings of their Russia investigation:
Mr. Trump takes the intelligence product when it suits his interests, but he seems to be a very selective consumer of information, not just intelligence. I think that’s very, very dangerous because not only does it undermine the confidence of people within the intelligence community, but it undermines the confidence of our allies and partners overseas. If he’s questioning U.S. intelligence, how should they feel about it?
The next time we go to one of our partners and say, ‘We really need your help on this issue because we have good intelligence that says X,’ why should they believe Mr. Trump or someone else from the administration after they’ve denigrated the quality of the intelligence community’s work?