How Putin could have been involved in U.S. election disruption

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A woman walks past a mural of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Belgrade, Serbia, December 4, 2016. The text on the mural reads in Russian, Serbia and English "Kosovo is Serbia".  REUTERS/Marko Djurica - RTSUKLY

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HARI SREENIVASAN:  But first, Donald Trump took to Twitter this morning to attack the Obama administration’s handling of Russia’s alleged hacking during the election.  He wrote, quote, “If Russia, or some other entity, was hacking, why did the White House wait so long to act?  Why did they only complain after Hillary lost?”

In fact, the U.S. intelligence community said in early October that it was confident Russia directed the hacks of the DNC.  Today, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Russian President Vladimir Putin was personally involved in efforts to disrupt the election and help Donald Trump win.

We look at Putin’s role now with Angela Stent.  She served in the State Department during the Clinton administration.  She’s now a professor at Georgetown University.

Does it make sense that Vladimir Putin would have a role?

ANGELA STENT, Georgetown University:  I think we have to go back to 2011.  In the fall of 2011, there were mass demonstrations in Moscow, protesting falsified elections and protesting Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he was coming back to the Kremlin.  He directly accused Hillary Clinton at that point of paying the demonstrators to go on to the streets in Moscow.  So, he, apparently, and his colleague in addition the Kremlin, believe there was U.S. interference in 2011 in the election, and, therefore, it’s fair game to interfere in the U.S. election because that’s, you know, what can big countries do.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Can something like this — it’s a big government, like all governments are — can something like this happen without his knowledge or approval?

ANGELA STENT:  I think he must have known on some level that this was happening.  I mean, hackers couldn’t just have done this freelance without at least having a sense that this was permitted.  Whether he personally directed it, I think that’s much more difficult to say.  I haven’t seen the evidence.  None of us have.  We’ve had contradictory statements from our own officials.

So, I think we’d have to know more about the personal direction.  But, clearly, there was an environment that encouraged this to happen.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Well, what about the assessment by the intelligence community that this was an effort to help Trump win?  Was it, as you said, perhaps revenge against Hillary Clinton, or was it that other element, too, to actually help Donald Trump?

ANGELA STENT: Well, clearly on the campaign trail, Donald Trump consistently praised Vladimir Putin.  It was only world leader that he consistently praised.  He said we need to do a deal with Russia.  We shouldn’t have such bad relations with Russia.

Whereas Hillary Clinton took a pretty tough line, as she had since leaving secretary of state.  So, I think it’s credible to believe the Russians wanted Donald Trump to win.  I’m not sure they expected him to win, but I think they saw an opportunity there.  Also, really, to help muddy the waters here and to have Americans questioning what was really going on.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  What could the U.S. do in response?

ANGELA STENT:  It’s very difficult to respond in kind.  I mean, we may be retaliating in ways that we don’t know.  It would be very hard to prosecute the hackers themselves.  And to do what they did, which is to then hack into people’s e-mails, and then release information that might help another candidate in an election.

I mean, Vladimir Putin is going to run for president in 2018, but it’s not going to be a competitive election.  So, we can’t — we couldn’t respond in kind anyway.

And so, I think, you know, that — there’s the possibility of sanctions that’s talked about in the Congress.  I’m not sure that that would do any good.  And I don’t think a Trump administration would want those sanctions.

So, I actually think one of the things that we should do, once the next administration is in office, is to try and work out with the Russians, as we have with the Chinese, at least some kind of a cyber agreement, some rules of the game, which — which we don’t have now with the Russians.  I’m not saying this would prevent this from happening again, but I think we need to at least try and work on out rules of the game with them.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  I was going to say, do these kind of agreements hold?

ANGELA STENT:  Well, with the Chinese, there are different views on this.  I mean, some aspect of it, apparently, have worked.  Others haven’t.  It’s really the best one can do because we’re in a very shadowy world there.

I mean, it’s very hard to know exactly who did the hacking and then, you know, who directed them.  As I said, it’s very difficult to prosecute.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Before the administration leaves — I mean, that’s a very small window of time.  If President Obama, with his existing authority, wanted to launch any sort of counter-offensive.  I mean, what’s that conversation like on January 20 — “By the way, here’s this operation I’ve begun, here are the keys”?

ANGELA STENT:   I mean, that’s possible, but, again, we have an incoming administration that has vowed to improve relations with Russia, and it’s very — one wonders whether they would really continue with it.  Plus, we have a president-elect who questioned what the intelligence — our intelligence services have said about this.

So, I think it would be very difficult to do it even if we started something now.  And I think, obviously, that’s what the Russians have been figuring would happen, too.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right.  Angela Stent, thanks so much.

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