Show an ad over header. AMP

The uncomfortable reality of American cyber espionage

American outrage over foreign cyber espionage, like Russia's SolarWinds hack, obscures the uncomfortable reality that the U.S. secretly does just the same thing to other countries.

Why it matters: Secrecy is often necessary in cyber spying to protect sources and methods, preserve strategic edges that may stem from purloined information, and prevent diplomatic incidents.

  • But when the U.S. is only portrayed as a victim of nation-state cyber activity and not as a perpetrator in its own right, it creates a false impression of the state of play and invites calls for vengeance that could prove misguided or self-defeating.

The big picture: The U.S. is stronger in cyberspace than any other country, with world-spanning digital snooping capabilities, buttressed by American technological ingenuity and some of the planet’s most talented hackers and daring overseas operators.

  • Yet hacking performed by the U.S. — or our Five Eyes allies — is artificially hidden from view. Not only do U.S. officials not disclose it, neither do most private threat intelligence firms (insofar as they have insight), for reasons of patriotism, pedigree and profit.

Generally, only foreign-owned private cyber firms like the Russia-based Kaspersky, the object of deep distrust by U.S. intelligence officials, have treated U.S. threat actors like others: by naming them, describing their targets, and detailing their tactics, techniques and procedures.

Between the lines: The greater visibility, and heated rhetoric, surrounding cyber operations targeting the U.S. leads to more ink being spilled on the subject, which, in an escalatory spiral, further raises the public temperature.

  • Many within the halls of government — including in Congress, where most lawmakers are not regularly privy to classified information regarding U.S. government hacking — are also taking their cues from public reporting.
  • That means U.S. officials are themselves absorbing, and then often further amplifying, this distorted view.

Even when officials do acknowledge American cyber spying, it's often in coded language or to describe a specific subset of U.S. actions.

  • Officials will talk of "defending forward" — that is, U.S. activity meant to raise the costs for adversaries to be successful in cyberspace — rather than speaking clearly and frankly about cyber espionage for traditional intelligence collection purposes.

Yes, but: "Russia launched SolarWinds — the latest in a long series of hostile Russian cyber operations — not because the U.S. has engaged too proactively in cyberspace," Gary Corn, a former senior Cyber Command official, wrote in Lawfare. "Quite the opposite; it did so, very simply, because it could."

  • The U.S.' own cyber operations neither explains nor justifies the actions or motivations of America’s adversaries. But a clearer public understanding of what the U.S. does in cyberspace would mean a clearer understanding of what other countries are up to.

The most measured reactions to SolarWinds have therefore often come from top U.S. intelligence officials, who know too much about the country’s own activities to pretend otherwise.

  • So while lawmakers like Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) compared SolarWinds to a Russian act of war, current and former intel officials were more muted.

"Good on them, bad on us," said former acting CIA director Michael Morell to news of the Russian hack. Morell emphasized that SolarWinds appears to have "just" been espionage and not, apparently, some type of prelude to destruction.

  • Paul Kolbe, a former senior CIA official, decried the “indignant howling” over SolarWinds in a provocative and clear-eyed essay in the New York Times.
  • In a statement about the hack, CISA, FBI, NSA and ODNI also underlined their assessment that SolarWinds “was, and continues to be, an intelligence gathering effort.”

The bottom line: The question isn’t whether U.S. cyber operators are, for example, targeting major Russian government agencies, but how successful these ventures have been and continue to be.

House passes For the People Act to expand voting rights

The House voted 220-210Wednesday to pass Democrats' expansive election and anti-corruption bill.

Why it matters: Expanding voting access has been a top priority for Democrats for years, but the House passage of the For the People Act (H.R. 1) comes as states across the country consider legislation to rollback voting access in the aftermath of former President Trump's loss.

Keep reading... Show less

House passes George Floyd Justice in Policing Act

The House voted 220-212onWednesday evening to pass a policing bill named for George Floyd, the Black man whose death in Minneapolis last year led to nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

Why it matters: The legislation overhauls qualified immunity for police officers, bans chokeholds at the federal level, prohibits no-knock warrants in federal drug cases and outlaws racial profiling.

Keep reading... Show less

Republicans are demanding a full 600-page reading of Biden’s COVID relief bill

Republicans are demanding a full, 600-page bill reading — and painful, multi-hour "vote-a-rama" — as Democrats forge ahead with their plan to pass President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.

Why it matters: The procedural war is aimed at forcing Democrats to defend several parts the GOP considers unnecessary and partisan. While the process won't substantially impact the final version of the mammoth bill, it'll provide plenty of ammunition for future campaign messaging.

Keep reading... Show less

Here’s how a single resignation, retirement or death could flip control of the 50-50 Senate

Note: Bernie Sanders is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Data: Axios Research/ProPublica/NCSL; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

Nineteen seats in the U.S. Senate could potentially flip parties if there's an unexpected vacancy, according to Axios' analysis of state vacancy rules, which most often allow the governor to appoint a replacement.

Why it matters: Depending on the senator, a single resignation, retirement or death — by accident or old age — could flip control of the 50-50 Senate, or give Democrats a two-vote cushion.

Keep reading... Show less

White House works with Democrats to ensure Biden quickly fills any federal court vacancies

The White House is quietly working with Senate Democrats to ensure President Biden has a steady stream of nominees for the federal courts, according to people familiar with the matter and an administration official.

Why it matters: Biden wants the federal judiciary to better reflect the country’s demographics, and to try to shield his unfolding legislative agenda from a judiciary currently dominated by Trump appointees.

Keep reading... Show less

Journalists around the world face record persecution

Around the world, journalists are being targeted at record levels by despots, eager to silence the press.

Why it matters: Experts worry that the United States' wavering stance on press freedoms over the past few years may have empowered autocrats looking to gain power and undermine democracy by going after journalists.

Keep reading... Show less

FBI, Homeland Security warn of increasing threat to Capitol

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security predict violent domestic extremists attacks will increase in 2021, according to a report reviewed by Axios.

Driving the news: The joint report says an unidentified group of extremists discussed plans to take control of the Capitol and "remove Democratic lawmakers" on or about March 4. The House canceled its plans for Thursday votes as word of the possible threats spread.

Keep reading... Show less

Pope Francis set to make first papal visit to Iraq amid possible turmoil

Data: Vatican News; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Pope Francis is forging ahead with the first papal trip to Iraq despite new coronavirus outbreaks and fears of instability.

The big picture: The March 5–8 visit is intended to reassure Christians in Iraq who were violently persecuted under the Islamic State. Francis also hopes to further ties with Shiite Muslims, AP notes.

Keep reading... Show less



Get Goodhumans in your inbox

Most Read

More Stories