As of this moment, president Obama is on his way to Hawaii, having just concluded his final press conference for 2016, and one of the last in his tenure as president. What did we learn in the rambling speech that lasted nearly two hours and saw one of the White House reporters faint? Not much that wasn't already insinuated, if not proven, repeatedly: Obama stuck to the script, and said Russia "in fact" had "hacked into the DNC," but that the actual voting process was not compromised. The White House was just trying to "let people know" what was going on, and the media interpreted the reasons.
While Obama took questions about Syria, China and Trump's transition team, Obama mostly spoke about Russia and the allegations by US intelligence agencies that Moscow had hacked the US election. Obama said that his administration allowed the public "to make an assessment" by letting people know that "the Russians were responsible for hacking" the Democratic National Committee earlier this year, adding that the intelligence community did its job "without political influence."
Citing alleged cyber security threats to the US, Obama said he had "told Putin to cut out the hacking" and indicated there would be consequences. which however he would not disclose.
"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, adding that Washington's response to Moscow's alleged interference is being done "in a thoughtful, methodical way." "Some of it we do publicly, some of it we will do in a way that they know but not everybody will," Obama told reporters, adding that "the message will be directly received by the Russians and not publicized."p>
"It's not like Putin is going around the world publicly saying, 'Look what we did, wasn't that clever' – he denies it," Obama said.
When meeting with Russia's President Putin in China in September, Obama said he confronted him directlyon the matter. The US leader told Moscow "to cut it out," and apparently since then Washington "didn't see further tampering with the election process."
By then, however, WikiLeaks had already published the DNC documents. In October they began publishing the emails of Clinton's campaign chair John Podesta, and the media "wrote about it every day," Obama said.
Obama also told journalists that Hillary Clinton had a "disadvantage" in the presidential campaign because of "how the US media covered her."
“I don’t think she was treated fairly during the election. I think the coverage of her and the issues was troubling,” he said, calling the leaks "an obsession" of the press.
"It's worth us reflecting how it is that a presidential election of such importance... came to be dominated by a bunch of these leaks," Obama told reporters, accusing the “divided, partisan, dysfunctional political process" for making the US vulnerable to "potential manipulations that were not particularly sophisticated."
"This was not some elaborate complicated espionage scheme," Obama said, again accusing Moscow of having hacked into the Democratic party emails, both Clinton's and Podesta's, that contained "pretty routine stuff" such as John Podesta's risotto recipe. What Obama failed to note is that the Podesta email hack provided an unvarnished, unfiltered and unique glimpse into the Washington corruption and cronyism at the very top levels, something the ordinary public could only dream of getting access to prior to the "Russian hack."
Also, despite insisting Russia was responsible for making the DNC and Podesta documents public, Obama repeated several times that the actual election was not tampered with.
“My principal goal leading up to the election was making sure the election itself went off without a hitch, that it was not tarnished, and that it did not feed any sense in the public that somehow tampering had taken place with the actual process of voting. And we accomplished that,” Obama said.
“I can assure the public that there was not the kind of tampering with the voting process that was the concern,” he said later, answering another question. "The votes that were cast were counted, and counted appropriately.”
Incidentally, Obama did not miss the opportunity to take the low road, and mock Russia, saying "They're a small country, they're a weak country, they don't produce anything that anybody wants to buy."
US cyber security faces a "constant challenge," the president said, adding that Washington has been warning other countries against cyberattacks. The US has been working on creating international norms in the field of cyber security, but along with defensive capabilities Washington also has "some offensive capabilities," he warned.
Attributing a cyber attack to a particular government can be difficult, and is “not always provable in court,” he cautioned.
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Separately, in a tangential discussion about a topic dear to much of the "alternative media", Obama shifted attention to the local media, and blamed talk radio and other "domestic propagandists" for the rise of "fake news," including fictional news items published by state-sponsored actors.
"If fake news that's being released by some foreign government is almost identical to reports that are being issued through partisan news venues, then it's not surprising that that foreign propaganda will have a greater effect. It doesn't seem that far-fetched compared to some of the other stuff folks are hearing from domestic propagandists," Obama said.
"To the extent that our political dialogue is such that everything is under suspicion, everybody's corrupt and everybody is doing things for partisan reasons, and all of our institutions are, you know full of malevolent actors, and if that's the story that is being put out there, then when a foreign government introduces that same argument, with facts that are made up, voters who have been listening to that stuff for years, who have been getting that stuff every day from talk radio or other venues, they're going to believe it."
As they should, especially if it's true.
Obama continued, lamenting that "our political dialogue is such that everything is under suspicion, everybody's corrupt and everybody is doing things for partisan reasons," and said "our vulnerability to Russia --or any other foreign power-- is directly related to how divided, partisan, dysfunctional our political process is."
"So if we want to really reduce foreign influence on our elections, then we better think about how to make sure that our political process, our political dialogue is stronger than it's been."
In other words, please stop criticizing the government as you are responsible for generating further partisan divisions, especially if the line of attack is similar to something the "propaganda" Russian press may put out.
While we would be the first to agree with this statement - if it were accurate - we can't help but think to last week's passage of the "Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act of 2016", whose ultimate purpose is to enforce a crackdown on any media - foreign and domestic - that the administration views as hostile.
Which is why we found Obama's parting statement, that "the Russians can't weaken us, but Putin can weaken us if we buy into notions that it is ok to intimidate the press", particularly ironic.