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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 2 hours ago - Sports

Swimmer Chase Kalisz first American to win Tokyo Olympics gold medal

Chase Kalisz of Team United States celebrates after winning the Men's 400m Individual Medley Final on day two of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images

Swimmer Chase Kalisz has become the first Team United States Olympian to win gold at the Tokyo Games.

The big picture: The Rio 2016 silver medalist's winning time in the men's 400 meters Individual Medley Final was 4 minutes 9.42 seconds. His teammate Jay Litherland took silver, .86 seconds behind him. Moments later, Kieran Smith grabbed a third medal for the U.S. when he won bronze in the 400-meter freestyle.

Go deeper: Full Axios coverage

Editor's note: This article has been updated with new details throughout.

2 hours ago - Sports

Gymnast Suni Lee to make historic debut at Olympics

USA's Sunisa Lee performs at the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, on Oct. 13, 2019. Photo: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images

When Sunisa "Suni" Lee steps up to the mat at the Tokyo Olympics, she'll be thinking of her father's pep talks even as he watches from thousands of miles away.

The big picture: The 18-year-old made history this year when she became the first Hmong American to be named to a U.S. Olympic team. Even more special was her dad's presence in the crowd at the Olympic trials — it was only the second time he watched her compete in person since a 2019 accident paralyzed him from the chest down.

DOJ won't investigate nursing home deaths in N.Y. and 2 other states

People who've lost loved ones due to COVID-19 while they were in New York nursing homes attend a March protest and vigil in New York City. As of this month, Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Department of Justice has decided not to launch a civil rights investigation into whether policies in New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan contributed to pandemic deaths in nursing homes, according to a letter sent to Republicans.

Why it matters: The Trump DOJ requested data from the three states plus New Jersey last August "amid still-unanswered questions about whether some states, especially New York, inadvertently worsened the pandemic death toll by requiring nursing homes to accept residents previously hospitalized for COVID-19," per AP.

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