“From my point of view, they’re terrorists. When they come at us with ransomware, even though they’re a criminal operation, they’re operating out of Russia, and they are going after some very important infrastructure in this country," Panetta, who is also a former defense secretary, said on MSNBC on Friday.
"And yeah, they’re doing it for money. But it is weakening the United States every time this infrastructure gets impacted," he added.
The remark comes after a string of cyberattacks that have targeted systems operated by both the US federal government and private companies.
This week, a ransomware attack on JBS USA, the largest supplier of beef in the nation, forced all its American facilities to shut down for a day.
Last month, Colonial Pipeline, which supplies around 45 percent of the East Coast's fuel supply, shut down its operations after a ransomware attack which Washington claimed was carried out by a Russian-based group. The company chose to pay the hackers the equivalent of $4.4 million in Bitcoin to receive keys to decrypt their systems.
And, the recent hack of information technology company SolarWinds allegedly gave access to thousands of companies and government offices that used its products.
The administration of President Joe Biden has accused Russia of harboring hackers who it said were behind the recent attacks.
The White House said President Biden will raise the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin during his summit with him this month.
FBI Director Christopher Wray on Friday compared the ransomware hacks to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in which about 3,000 Americans lost their lives.
“There are a lot of parallels, there’s a lot of importance, and a lot of focus by us on disruption and prevention,” Wray told The Wall Street Journal in an article.
“There’s a shared responsibility, not just across government agencies but across the private sector and even the average American,” he added.
Wray said that the FBI is investigating about 100 types of ransomware attacks, claiming that Russia is behind many of them.
This week the US Justice Department said it will give investigations into ransomware attacks the same priority as those of terrorist attacks.
“It's a specialized process to ensure we track all ransomware cases regardless of where it may be referred in this country, so you can make the connections between actors and work your way up to disrupt the whole chain,” said John Carlin, the acting deputy attorney general at the Justice Department.