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.
The second part can be thought of as an enormous, state-on-state doxing operation. Instead of sitting on the information stolen from the Democrats and using it to inform its policy positions and predict the U.S. government’s moves and motives, the Kremlin appears to have gone one (giant) step further, releasing that information into the wild. The U.S. intelligence community has determined that publishing hacked documents through WikiLeaks, DCLeaks.com, and Guccifer 2.0 is “consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts.” This week, NBC News and ABC News reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin was personally involved in directing the operation.
This is where things start to wander into uncharted territory, according to Houghton and Gordon Corera, the BBC’s security correspondent and the author of the espionage-history book, Cyberspies. The release of the surreptitiously gathered information, either to tip an election in one direction or just to sow disorder, is novel—especially in the context of American elections. During the 2008 and 2012 cycles, political campaigns came under cyberattack, but if anything was stolen, it was never shared with the public.
Despite the unique nature of this intervention, the 2016 cyberattacks square with Russian intelligence techniques reaching as far back as the Cold War. It’s an evolution of the Soviet Union’s “active measures,” a tactic favored by the KGB that involved covertly spreading politically damaging fictions in order to seed discord in an enemy. Houghton pointed to an example: Operation INFEKTION, a Soviet misinformation campaign in the 1980s that claimed the U.S. Army had created the AIDS virus at a research facility in Maryland. The Soviet Union pushed the story particularly hard in Africa, where AIDS epidemics had broken out in several countries, and where the Kremlin was wrestling with the U.S. for influence.
“What we’re seeing, essentially, is a long-running, old, traditional struggle, perhaps being conducted in new ways with new technology,” said John Hughes-Wilson, a former British intelligence officer and the author of The Secret State, a history of espionage. “Do you not think the CIA is working hard—I bloody well hope they are, actually—to try and do stuff in Russia? I mean, why do you guys pay your taxpayer dollars?”
Given the CIA’s history, it’s not a stretch to assume that the agency is regularly taking covert action overseas, including around elections. Shortly after the CIA was established in 1947, its agents poured money, propaganda, and even threats into Italy during its national elections, for example, in order to keep communist-aligned politicians from coming to power. In 1953, the CIA teamed up with its British counterpart, MI6, to overthrow Iranian Prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh and reinstate the Shah, who had been pushed out of power. And in the years since, it’s intervened repeatedly in other countries’ affairs.
Part of the reason Russia’s alleged meddling this year seems so shocking is because the tables have turned. “We’ve bought and sold elections in the past,” says Houghton. “But now it’s happening to us, and, as an American, that’s different to me.”
Even if Russia did aim to help Trump win the election, it’s not clear how big a role the publication of the stolen documents played in swaying voters. But the intrusions certainly created confusion and chaos, and that may be just as useful to the Kremlin. Internal fractionalization could distract the U.S. and allow Russia to act even more boldly on the international stage without fearing American repercussions.
“Here, you have an information campaign that’s now pitting the CIA against the FBI, Democrats against Republicans, even Republicans against Republicans. This is perfection. Perfection!” exclaimed Houghton. “It’s just right out of the playbook.”
At this point, there’s no indication (beyond unsubstantiated claims from outgoing Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid) that the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia, even if it benefited from its actions. The details about Russia’s aims aren’t entirely clear, because the CIA has found itself at odds with the FBI over its assessment that the Kremlin tried to help Trump out.
One of the key elements of the CIA’s determination—the claim that the Republican National Committee was hacked, too, but that Russian leaders chose not to leak any of that information—is beginning to look more likely. If it turns out to be true, the Trump administration may find itself in a bind going forward. Reince Priebus, who will be Trump’s chief of staff, has been the chairman of the RNC for six years. Internal RNC communications and documents could contain embarrassing details that could hurt Priebus—and which could be held over the administration’s heads as blackmail once it’s in the White House.
More information about the cyberattacks is forthcoming: President Obama ordered a review of election-related hacking last week, and Congress is launching multiple investigations into the developments as well.
Unless the probes turn up obvious evidence of collusion between Trump’s team and the Russian hackers, it’s unlikely the president-elect will face any repercussions. The reviews will, however, help inform how high-profile cyberattacks will be treated in the future. President Obama reportedly chose not to respond forcefully to Russian hacking, preferring instead to rebuke Putin in private on the sidelines of at a Group of 20 summit in China, The New York Times reported.
So far, it appears that Russia has gotten away with meddling in a U.S. election. That may send a message to other countries that the U.S. won’t lash out after it comes under cyberattack if it’s not politically convenient to do so. But it may also be that the U.S. government just chose not to retaliate in a public way.
“U.S. officials I’ve spoken to are cautious of responding ‘in kind,’ for instance by revealing embarrassing details of where Russian officials place their dirty money,” wrote Corera, the security correspondent, in an email. “The fear is that doing this might establish a new norm that this kind of activity is now fair game.”
The uncertainty surrounding cyberwar norms has a lot to do with how new the phenomenon is. Houghton compared it to the advent of nuclear weapons, when members of Congress struggled to grasp the impact the nuclear age would have on diplomacy and war. Eventually, Houghton said, we’ll look back on 2016 to try and understand the beginnings of the an era defined by online warfare. “This is going to be something that we’ll study for a long time,” he said.