Director Michael Hayden
CIA Director Michael Hayden listens to questioning during a House Intelligence CommitteeWin McNamee/Getty Images

Former US intelligence chief Michael Hayden, who has previously held top positions at the NSA and CIA, has admitted that US spy agencies – like their Russian counterparts – have previously hacked foreign political parties in past operations.

Speaking at an interview hosted by The Heritage Foundation this week (18 October), Hayden argued the main difference between the US and Russian intelligence groups is that the Kremlin has intentionally worked to "weaponise" stolen data to influence the political process.

"I have to admit my definition of what the Russians did [at the DNC] is, unfortunately, honourable state espionage," Hayden explained, adding: "A foreign intelligence service getting the internal emails of a major political party in a major foreign adversary? Game on. That's what we do."

He continued: "By the way, I would not want to be in an American court of law and be forced to deny that I never did anything like that as director of the NSA, because I could not." He was keen to stress, however, that the Russian hacking campaign "went beyond espionage."

The former intelligence chief, who was the director of the NSA between 1999 and 2005 and director of the CIA between 2006 and 2009, said the Russian government likely contracted its hacking to criminal gangs "as a way to create a little distance between the Russian state and the actual actors."

The US intelligence community recently released an official statement declaring that Russia's "senior-most officials" likely authorised recent hacks at groups including the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

"These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process. Such activity is not new to Moscow — the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there," the statement read.

Yet the NSA has been implicated in the past in similar state espionage. In 2013, based on documents released by former agency analyst Edward Snowden, Der Spiegel revealed how the US had tapped phone conversations of German chancellor Angela Merkel and her closest advisers for over 10 years.

"They are doing it to mess with our heads"

Hayden, however, maintains the Russian attacks are vastly different to the NSA's type of tradecraft. "To take the internal emails and then begin to use them to influence the American election, that's quite a different matter," he said.

"That has now moved from an espionage activity to a covert – or not very covert – influence operation. I think they are doing it to mess with our heads, to erode confidence in our political processes.

"I think they are doing it because [Russian president Vladimir Putin] is convinced we do this to him all the time. We do not. We don't."

Hayden said the recent hacks should be analysed as a broader geo-political issue. "Do not drop this in the cyber problem box," he said. "Drop this in the Russia problem box. Do not treat this by its means, treat it by its actor. By the way, that Russia problem box – we're going to need a bigger box."

For its part, and as is to be expected of nation-state activity, the Kremlin has denied being involved in the cyberattacks against the US. In a recent interview, Vladimir Putin said: "Everyone is talking about who did it. But is it that important? The most important thing is what is inside this information. There's nothing there benefitting Russia."