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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

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.

Go deeper

Updated 18 mins ago - World

U.S. and UN express concern to Israel over Jerusalem violence

Israeli soldiers throw tear gas canisters at Palestinian demonstrators during a protest near the Jewish settlement of Beit El near Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, on Sunday. Photo: Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty Images

The United Nations called on Israel Sunday to show "maximum restraint and respect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly" and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan expressed "serious concerns" about violence in Jerusalem.

Driving the news: Over 250 Palestinians and several Israeli police officers have been wounded since Friday during protests over planned evictions of Palestinian families from their homes in the city's east — which Sullivan also expressed concern about, per a White House statement.

Emergency declaration issued in 17 states and D.C. over fuel pipeline cyberattack

Photo: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Biden administration said it's "working with" fuel pipeline operator Colonial Pipeline to try and restart operations after a ransomware attack took it offline.

Why it matters: Friday night's cyberattack is "the most significant, successful attack on energy infrastructure" known to have occurred in the U.S., notes energy researcher Amy Myers Jaffe, per Politico. A regional emergency

Ina Fried, author of Login
Updated 4 hours ago - Technology

Exclusive: GLAAD finds top social media sites "categorically unsafe"

The leading social media sites — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube — are all "categorically unsafe" for LGBTQ people, according to a new study from GLAAD, the results of which were revealed Sunday on "Axios on HBO."

The big picture: GLAAD had planned to give each of the sites a grade as part of its inaugural social media index, but opted not to give individual grades this year after determining all the leading sites would receive a failing grade.

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