Obama Should Out Putin's Wealth After Election Hack

(Bloomberg View) -- Everyone except the next president seems to understand that Russia interfered in the U.S. election.

It's not just the latest CIA assessments, or the earlier public statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security. Nor is it the fact that cyber-security experts in July had pinned the hacks of Democrats on bad actors in Moscow. As the Daily Beast reported Monday, even Russian officials are pretty much copping to the cybercrime of this young century.

All of this raises a very Russian question for Obama: What is to be done?

It's tricky. The current president certainly shouldn't respond in kind. Given Putin's own war against his opposition, future Russian elections will be as good as fixed before anyone votes. What's more, Putin these days is popular. So hacking and leaking the e-mails of Putin's allies doesn't have the same effect as hacking and leaking the e-mails of Hillary Clinton's allies.

Obama's options are limited. Sanctions or covert action? Trump could begin to reverse them in less than six weeks. Based on his response to the reports about the Russian hacking assessments over the weekend, it's safe to assume Trump is not inclined to punish Putin for hacking and leaking the e-mails of his political opponents.

The one thing Obama can do -- something that Trump cannot undo -- is disclosure. Obama should disclose as much of the intelligence community's assessment of the Russian hacks as he can without compromising sources and methods. This way the public discourse can be based upon facts instead of whispers. Democrats in Congress, with the support of a growing number of Republicans, are already talking about a multi-year independent study. Far better for us all to immediately see a detailed report laying out what the Russians did in the last year.

That would be a start, but Russia still should pay for its interference. To do that, Obama should shine a spotlight on the Russian president's money. Since the 2014 stealth invasion of Ukraine, the CIA and the Treasury Department have devoted more resources to learning the details of Putin's personal wealth. Obama should declassify dossiers of Putin's and his inner circle's fortune: their front companies, their homes, their yachts, their secret bank accounts. If he's feeling puckish, Obama could tell his administration to anonymously post all that information on random public websites. He could say the CIA was hacked. Oops. Sorry, Vladimir. Our cyber security is a mess right now. 

U.S. officials have hinted before that they know more than they are saying about Putin's money. Adam Szubin, the acting undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, told the BBC in January that Putin "supposedly draws a state salary of something like $110,000 a year. That is not an accurate statement of the man's wealth, and he has long time training and practices in terms of how to mask his actual wealth."

In October, retired Admiral James Stavridis told NBC News: "It's well known that there's a great deal of offshore money moved outside of Russia from oligarchs. … It would be very embarrassing if that was revealed, and that would be a proportional response to what we've seen."

For normal countries, this kind of information on a national leader would be political poison. But for Putin it won't be. When the Panama Papers were released this year, implicating Russian oligarchs in shielding their wealth in offshore accounts, there was little interest inside Russia. Most Russians expect their leaders to be corrupt.

The effect of a disclosure by the Obama administration though would be apparent in the West. Putin may not care whether his citizens know how corrupt he is. But I bet his Western bankers and business partners do. Fiona Hill, a senior fellow and Russia expert at the Brookings Institution, told me Monday: "The one thing about revealing this information is that it would stigmatize his wealth. This is shining a spotlight on him and his allies."

Hill added, however, that she did not know how much concrete information the U.S. government had in this regard. Putin is very good at hiding his money.  

It's doubtful that Trump would begin his presidency by imposing sanctions on the Russians for the electoral hacks. But having a detailed, public record of Putin's and his inner circle's wealth would at least leave this option open for European governments. And who knows: in a month or a year, the Trump administration might have a vendetta against Putin, and if it does, the justification for sanctions will already be a matter of public record.

Even in the meantime, the disclosure could actually help Trump. The president-elect says he wants to reset the U.S.-Russian relationship, just as Obama said when he came into office in 2009. The prospect of Western banks shying away from the personal wealth of Putin and his allies would create a little leverage in what are sure to be tough negotiations about that reset. As Trump might say, it's a reminder of the kind of thing that can happen to Putin's money if he doesn't play nice. Big league.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

To contact the author of this story: Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net.