On December 29, 2016, President Obama amended Executive Order 13694 – otherwise known as the ‘Cyber Sanctions Executive Order’ – to provide additional authority to the Secretary of the Treasury, acting in concert with the Secretary of State and the Attorney General, to impose blocking sanctions on persons determined to be responsible for or complicit in, or to have engaged in, cyber-enabled activities originating from, or directed by persons located, outside the United States that have the purpose or effect of tampering with, altering, or causing a misappropriation of information with the purpose or effect of interfering with or undermining election processes or institutions. (Yes, that is a mouthful.) The amended Executive Order was issued for the express purpose of sanctioning Russia for its alleged interference in the recent U.S. presidential election, and the Order includes an Annex listing four Russian individuals and entities deemed to be responsible for such tampering and interference in the U.S. election via cyber-enabled activities.
Earlier reports had indicated that the Obama administration would undertake an amendment of Executive Order 13694 in order to capture the activities of Russian individuals and entities involved in the election interference. Lawyers in the Obama administration had determined that the Order itself did not provide the authority to sanction such Russian individuals and entities, as the targeted activities fell outside the scope of the Order. As one Obama administration official told the Washington Post, “You would (a) have to be able to say that the actual electoral infrastructure, such as state databases, was critical infrastructure, and (b) that what the Russians did actually harmed it. Those are two high bars.” Evidently, too high to have been met, as the Executive Order was indeed amended to capture those activities of Russia for which the United States sought to sanction. (Apparently, Obama administration officials were reluctant to stretch the meaning of the original EO in such a way as to render Russia’s alleged conduct sanctionable.)
In sanctioning Russia, however, the Obama administration did not pull its punches: the Annex to the amended Order lists the Main Intelligence Directorate (Russia’s largest foreign intelligence agency), its head Lt. Gen. Igor Korobov, its Deputy Chief Sergey Aleksandrovich Gizunov, and its First Deputy Chiefs Igor Kostyukov and Vladimir Alexseyev; the Federal Security Service (Russia’s principal security agency); and three technical agencies: the Special Technology Center, Zorsecurity, and the Autonomous Non-Commercial Organization Professional Association of Designers of Data Processing Systems (each of which provided “specialized training” to the Main Intelligence Directorate). Each of these persons and entities is subject to blocking sanctions (although I would be surprised to find any of the persons or entities holding assets in the United States or in the possession or control of a U.S. person, wherever located, considering the fact that these are high-level officials and institutions of the Russian government), and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in any transactions with them. The White House has a fact sheet detailing additional information relating to these specific individuals and entities.
Judged as a response to Russia’s alleged electoral interference, President Obama’s imposition of sanctions on high-level Russian targets has so far proven unsatisfactory. Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham – both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and presumably clued in to the intelligence underlying the administration’s determination that the Russian government took steps to interfere in the U.S. presidential election – called the sanctions a “small price for Russia to pay for its brazen attack on American democracy.” Even the President’s own party and the ostensible victim of the Russian cyber-attacks, the Democratic National Committee, called President Obama’s action “insufficient” as a responsive measure to an “attack on the United States by a foreign power.”
Nonetheless, this use of Executive Order 13694 is consistent with the administration’s prior discussion as to how it would utilize its new authorities. Following the Order’s initial release back in April 2015, the Special Assistant to the President and Cyber-Security Coordinator Michael Daniel noted that EO 13694 was “designed to fill a gap…where individuals carrying out significant malicious cyber-activity are located in places difficult for our diplomatic and law enforcement tools to reach, whether because they’re behind the borders of a country that has weak cyber-security laws or the government is complicit in or turning a blind eye to the activity,…and we don’t have good law enforcement relationships…” At the time, the Obama administration stated that its use of the Order would be “targeted and judicious…targeted against the worst of the worst, the most serious overseas malicious actors.” While the U.S. intelligence community has yet to reveal how it was made aware that the Russian government was behind the cyber-attacks and coordinated its assault in such a manner as to deliberately interfere with the U.S. electoral process, if the administration’s allegations are true, then this would clearly constitute the kind of threat to U.S. national security that the Obama administration envisioned when it first promulgated the Order. Considering the administration’s promise to use its new authorities under EO 13694 “judiciously” (which time has borne out considering the hesitancy to issue designations under the Order at all), the fact that the Obama administration sanctioned high-level Russian officials and government entities pursuant to the Order signals the seriousness with which the administration takes the intelligence at hand.
Will that satisfy the administration’s critics? Unlikely. Already, Sens. McCain and Graham have promised “to lead the effort in the new Congress to impose stronger sanctions on Russia.” Their ability to do so, though, may be compromised by President-elect Trump’s urge to repair diplomatic relations with Russia as opposed to exacerbate present tensions. Not everyone in the Republican caucus is prepared to take as hard a line against Russia as are Sens. McCain and Graham. But if Congress does take the lead in retaliating against the Russian government for its alleged electoral interference, then we may see a much less judicious use of this sanctions tool in the near future.