Former CIA Director Michael Hayden says Democrats and others are wrong to describe Russia’s hacking campaign to influence the outcome of the presidential election as an “act of war.”
Hayden, a contributor for The Hill, described Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election as the “most successful covert influence campaign in the history of covert influence campaigns.”
But he said charges that Russia engaged in warfare only underscore the U.S. government’s lack of definition of what constitutes aggression in cyberspace.
“I would never use that term,” Hayden, who served as CIA director during the administration of George W. Bush, told The Hill in an interview on Tuesday.
Lawmakers — most of them Democrats — have described Russia’s election meddling as warfare. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has also said that Moscow’s attempts to influence the election would be considered an act of war “in some quarters.”
“I’ve never agreed with Dick Cheney in my entire life, but when he said this was an act of war, I have to agree with the former vice president. It was an act of war,” former interim Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Donna Brazile said last month.
Hayden, who spoke on the sidelines of a cybersecurity summit in Virginia, said the phrase highlights how the government doesn’t grasp what crosses a line in cyberspace.
“We are very sloppy with our language,” Hayden said. “My concern is not that it’s going to lock us into an inappropriate response. My concern is it’s just another reflection of, we haven’t gotten the deeper understanding required to really operate in this domain — what constitutes normal state-to-state activity, what constitutes a crime, what constitutes espionage, what constitutes war.”
The government does not have a formal definition of what actions in cyberspace would warrant a U.S. military response, though Congress has passed legislation requiring the administration to report on what acts could constitute war in cyberspace within the year.
The intelligence community concluded in January that Russia attempted to influence the presidential election by hacking and orchestrating the release of emails from DNC staffers and other high-level Democratic officials in an effort to undermine U.S. democracy and damage the candidacy of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 Clinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty MORE.
FBI Director James Comey disclosed last month that the bureau is investigating the influence campaign — including whether there was coordination between associates of the Trump campaign and Moscow. Congressional committees are also investigating Russia’s efforts.
Democrats have demanded a tougher response for the election hacking.
Rep. Lois FrankelLois Jane FrankelDemocrats repeal prohibition on funding abortions abroad Investing in child care paves the way to a better economy Democrats introduce equal pay legislation for US national team athletes MORE (D-Fla.) equated the election hacks with dropping missiles on a polling place in an interview with The Hill last week.
“Had Russia sent missiles into Wisconsin or Pennsylvania to hit a polling place, there would be a lot of attention given to it by everybody and there would be no denial by the president of the United States of Russian intervention with our elections,” said Frankel, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
President Obama unveiled a new round of sanctions on Russia before he left office and expelled dozens of Russian diplomats from the United States. Hayden, who was fiercely critical of Trump throughout the campaign, said Tuesday that the new administration should further punish Russia.
“This is not a cyber problem. It’s a Russia problem. You drop the problem in the Russia box, not the cyber box, which then gives you a whole range of things to respond to,” Hayden said. “I’d give arms to the Ukrainians. I’d make sure we complete those deployments to the Baltics of NATO forces.”
Hayden also said that Trump was right to “slap around [Russia’s] chief client state in the Middle East” by bombing an airfield belonging to Syrian President Bashar Assad — a major ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin — in response to a chemical attack last week.
The move has, for the time being, ensnared Trump’s hopes of cultivating warmer relations with Russia but has been welcomed by members of both parties. The White House has accused Russia of attempting to “cover up” the Assad administration's sarin gas attack on Syrian civilians on April 4.
Hayden, who directed the CIA between 2006 and 2008 and the National Security Agency between 1999 and 2005, spoke at length about cyber vulnerabilities and threats from nation states at the conference hosted by cybersecurity firm Forcepoint on Tuesday.
He also said that Trump has been wrong to go after the intelligence community for allegedly leaking information about contacts between Russians and associates of his campaign. This includes former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign after it was revealed that he misled administration officials about his phone contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
“My life experience [has been] when intelligence information leaks, it does not come from intelligence,” Hayden said. “My life experience suggests look somewhere else.”