This weekend, Michael Morell, the former acting director of the CIA, was asked about the intelligence community’s findings that Russia interfered in the presidential election. His answer was unequivocal: The country isn’t grasping the magnitude of the story, he told The Cipher Brief. “To me, and this is to me not an overstatement, this is the political equivalent of 9/11.”
Morell’s comments went even further than what members of Congress—mostly Democrats—have been saying for months: that the Russian-directed cyberattacks are an unprecedented attack on American democracy.
In the heat of moment, it’s easy to lose sight of the context around the Russian hacking operation. In spite of the distinctive 21st-century flavor of the digital intrusions, the data breaches that affected Democrats are just a modern example of routine country-on-country spying. What sets them apart, though, is the high profile of their mark—an American presidential election—and the hackers’ willingness to leak stolen information to influence voters’ opinions. Altogether, it’s perhaps one of the greatest examples of a successful espionage operation in history.
It’s useful to think of the operation as two distinct parts, says Vince Houghton, the International Spy Museum’s historian and curator. The first part—intrusions into the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee and the personal email of Hillary Clinton’s senior campaign manager, John Podesta—was intelligence-gathering, plain and simple. It’s the sort of activity that every spy agency in the world engages in on a routine basis. Once, this required rifling through others’ mail; later, as technology progressed, it involved tapping phones, and now, it can be done with a well-crafted phishing email.