WASHINGTON — Over the past four months, US intelligence agencies and aides to President Obama assembled a menu of options to respond to Russia’s hacking during the election, ranging from the obvious — exposing President Vladimir Putin’s financial ties to oligarchs — to the innovative, including manipulating the computer code that Russia uses in designing its cyberweapons.
But while Obama vowed Friday to “send a clear message to Russia” as both punishment and deterrent, some of the options were rejected as ineffective, others as too risky. If the choices had been better, one of the aides involved in the debate noted recently, the president would have acted by now.
That Situation Room debate has confronted Obama, who is naturally cautious, in his last weeks in office, with a complex calculus that President-elect Donald Trump will also face in conflicts to come: how to use world’s most powerful cyberarsenal at a moment when the United States, as the election showed, is highly vulnerable.
“Is there something we can do to them, that they would see, they would realize 98 percent that we did it, but that wouldn’t be so obvious that they would then have to respond for their own honor?” David Petraeus, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency under Obama, asked Friday at a conference here sponsored by Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “The question is how subtle do you want it, how damaging do you want it, how do you try to end it here rather than just ratchet it up?”
The idea of exposing Putin’s links to oligarchs was set aside after some aides argued that it would not come as a shock to Russians. Still, there are proposals to cut off leaders in Putin’s inner circle from their hidden bank accounts in Europe and Asia. There is an option to use sanctions under a year-old executive order to ban international travel for senior officials in the GRU, the Russian military intelligence unit that US spy agencies say stole e-mails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, then doled them out to WikiLeaks, betting that media outlets eager for insider details would amplify them, doing the Kremlin’s work for it.
The National Security Agency and its military cousin, the US Cyber Command, which is responsible for computer-network warfare, have worked up other ideas, officials said, though some have been rejected by the Pentagon.
Those plans could deploy the world-class arsenal of cyberweapons assembled at a cost of billions of dollars during Obama’s tenure to expose or neutralize some of the hacking tools favored by Russia’s spies — the digital equivalent of a preemptive strike. But the selection of targets by the United States and the accuracy of that retaliation could also expose software “implants” that the United States has patiently inserted and nurtured in Russian networks, in case of future cyberconflicts.
And the revelation in August about some of the NSA’s own tools for breaking into foreign computer networks has raised the possibility that the Russians are already inside American networks and are sending a warning that they can respond in kind.
All of this has led Obama to ask how the Russians might escalate the confrontation, and whether the United States in the end may have more to lose than Russia.
“He doesn’t have great options,” said Michael D. McFaul, formerly one of Obama’s top national security aides and then his ambassador to Moscow.
Obama is the president who, in his first year in office, reached for some of the most sophisticated cyberweapons on earth to blow up parts of Iran’s nuclear facilities. Now, at the end of his presidency, he has run headlong into a different challenge in the cyberwarfare arena.
The president has reached two conclusions, senior officials report: The only thing worse than not using a weapon is using it ineffectively. And if he does choose to retaliate, he has insisted on maintaining what is known as “escalation dominance,” the ability to assure you can end a conflict on your terms.
Obama hinted as much at his news conference Friday, as he was set to leave for his annual Hawaii vacation, his last as president.
“Our goal continues to be to send a clear message to Russia or others not to do this to us because we can do stuff to you,” he said. “But it is also important to us to do that in a thoughtful, methodical way. Some of it, we will do publicly. Some of it we will do in a way that they know, but not everybody will.”