The U.S. government spent more than a decade preparing responses to malicious hacking by a foreign power but had no clear strategy when Russia launched a disinformation campaign over the internet during the U.S. election campaign, current and former White House cyber security advisers said.
Far more effort has gone into plotting offensive hacking and preparing defenses against the less probable but more dramatic damage from electronic assaults on the power grid, financial system or direct manipulation of voting machines.
Over the last several years, U.S. intelligence agencies tracked Russia's use of coordinated hacking and disinformation in Ukraine and elsewhere, the advisers and intelligence experts said, but there was little sustained, high-level government conversation about the risk of the propaganda coming to the United States.
During the presidential election it did - to an extent that may have altered the outcome, the security sources said. But U.S. officials felt limited in investigating Russian-supported propaganda efforts because of free speech guarantees in the Constitution.
A former White House official cautioned that any U.S. government attempt to counter the flow of foreign state-backed disinformation through deterrence would face major political, legal and moral obstacles.
"You would have to have massive surveillance and curtailed freedom and that is a cost we have not been willing to accept,” said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They (Russia) can control distribution of information in ways we don't."
Clinton Watts, a security consultant, former FBI agent and a fellow at the nonprofit Foreign Policy Research Institute, said the U.S. government no longer has an organization, such as the U.S. Information Agency, that provided counter-narratives during the Cold War.
He said that most major Russian disinformation campaigns in the United States and Europe have started at Russian-government funded media outlets, such as RT television or Sputnik News, before being amplified on Twitter by others.
Watts said it was urgent for the U.S. government to build the capability to track what is happening online and dispute false stories.
"Those two things need to be done immediately," Watts said. "You have to have a public statement or it leads to conspiracy theories."
A defense spending pill passed this month calls for the State Department to establish a "Global Engagement Center" to take on some of that work, but similar efforts to counter less sophisticated Islamic State narratives have fallen short.
The U.S. government formally accused Russia of a campaign of cyber attacks against U.S. political organizations in October, a month before the Nov. 8 election.