Evidence that Russia attempted to sway the outcome of the presidential election with a hacking campaign targeting Democrats “is the political equivalent of 9/11,” the former acting director of the CIA, Michael Morell, said in an interview published Monday.
Morell, an intelligence analyst who served as acting director of the CIA twice between 2011 and 2013, told The Cipher Brief that revelations disclosed in a new CIA report about how Russia meddled in the election to help get Donald Trump elected “is an attack on our very democracy.”
“A foreign government messing around in our elections is, I think, an existential threat to our way of life,” Morell said. “To me, and this is to me not an overstatement, this is the political equivalent of 9/11.”
In a secret assessment – the content of which has been leaked to the press via high-level officials briefed on the intelligence – the CIA said Russia was not just trying to undermine confidence in the US election process when it hacked the emails of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.
Rather, the report said, the Russians were working toward a specific goal: to hurt Clinton and boost Trump. That assessment was bolstered by the CIA’s discovery that the Russians had also breached the Republican National Committee but chose not to release any of the information, lending credence to the idea that the Kremlin made a specific and targeted effort to embarrass Democrats. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus has denied the committee was hacked.
“We’ll never know what the Russians did, whether it affected a single vote or not,” said Morell, who briefed George W. Bush after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. “But what we can do is figure out exactly what they did and make changes here at home as to how information is handled, how we protect information, and make sure they never do this again.”
Morell said he had not been briefed on the new intelligence and knew only what had been reported in The Washington Post. But he said the US intelligence community knew as early as October that the Russian government was behind the hacks, and that he called on the Obama administration to launch an “overt” response to Russia’s meddling that’s “got to be significant from Putin’s perspective.”
“He has to feel some pain, he has to pay a price here or again, there will be no deterrence, and it has to be seen by the rest of the world as being significant to Mr. Putin so that it can be a deterrent,” Morell said.
President Barack Obama has ordered the intelligence community to conduct a full review into the Russian hacking campaign and how it may have affected the presidential election. The Obama administration has also been weighing various retaliatory measures, from imposing sanctions to authorizing covert action against computer servers.