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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Trump's reluctance to name and shame Russia for the SolarWinds cyberattack will hamper companies and government agencies as they begin the long and daunting job of assessing and repairing the hack's damage.

Why it matters: Experts say Russia's fingerprints are all over the attack, but the president's dissent will hobble any U.S. response — at least until Jan. 20.

Catch up quick: Security officials and experts share a broad consensus that the "Cozy Bear" group, also known as APT29, overseen by Russia's SVR intelligence service, was responsible for the hack.

  • The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) described the attackers as "a patient, well-resourced, and focused adversary that has sustained long duration activity on victim networks."

White House officials had readied a statement Friday calling Russia "the main actor" in the attack, but were ordered not to release it, the Associated Press reports.

Between the lines: Some security experts fear the president's position will transform what should be a unified government response to a hostile act by a foreign power into yet another personal loyalty test.

  • Last month Trump fired CISA director Christopher Krebs after Krebs affirmed that the 2020 election had been secure.
  • Anything involving "Russia, Russia, Russia" (as Trump put it in his tweet) has been a sore point for the president since Russia's hacks during the 2016 election became the foundation for years of investigations into his administration's relationship with Moscow.

Yes, but: Leaders from both parties, including Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), have called for holding Russia accountable and launching a significant response.

  • President-elect Joe Biden said in a statement: "I will not stand idly by in the face of cyber assaults on our nation."
  • Incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain told CBS' "Face the Nation" that the new administration's response to an "attack like this" would go beyond sanctions and include steps "to degrade the capacity of foreign actors to repeat this sort of attack."

With all this going on, the administration is also pushing a plan to separate the leadership of the Cyber Command from the National Security Agency, according to a story in Defense One.

  • The "dual hat" arrangement has long been under review, but the SolarWinds crisis seems a strange moment to start a big reorg in the world of cyber defense.
  • The New York Times reports some observers are questioning the timing and whether the move is "retribution" against Gen. Paul Nakasone, who now runs both agencies.

Breaking: Private-sector victims of the hack include Cisco, Intel, Nvidia, Deloitte, VMware and Belkin, according to the Wall Street Journal, which identified infected systems at those firms.

  • Each company told the Journal they'd found no evidence of actual harm from the intrusions.

How it worked: Microsoft, in a fascinating weekend post, provided details of how the hackers hid their break-in, using a software update for SolarWinds' Orion network management platform to gain access to thousands of institutions' systems.

  • "The threat actors were savvy enough to avoid give-away terminology like 'backdoor', 'keylogger,' etc.," the Microsoft post says. Instead, they gave their tampered code an innocuous name — "OrionImprovementBusinessLayer" — that would fit right into a marketing brochure.
  • The attack's crucial, door-opening exploit was a small chunk of "poisoned code" (as Microsoft dubbed it) all of five lines long, or roughly 160 characters.
  • This could well be the most damage per character yet achieved in the short history of cyber warfare.

Go deeper

Jan 26, 2021 - World

Biden holds first phone call with Putin, raises Navalny arrest

Putin takes a call in 2017. Photo: Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty

President Biden on Tuesday held his first call since taking office with Vladimir Putin, pressing the Russian president on the arrest of opposition leader Alexey Navalny and the Russia-linked hack on U.S. government agencies.

The state of play: Biden also raised arms control, bounties allegedly placed on U.S. troops in Afghanistan and the war in Ukraine, according to a White House readout. The statement said Biden and Putin agreed maintain "consistent communication," and that Biden stressed the U.S. would "act firmly in defense of its national interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us or our allies."

20 mins ago - Health

White House says Obamacare sign-ups hit record

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra speaking in the White House in December 2021. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The White House said Thursday that a record 14.5 million Americans have signed up for health insurance through Obamacare marketplaces since Nov. 1, including more than 10 million enrollments through HealthCare.gov.

Why it matters: Last year's stimulus bill contained substantial investments in the program, including increased subsidies for people who don't receive health insurance from an employer or through Medicare or Medicaid.

41 mins ago - World

Kremlin says U.S. written responses ignored Russia's main NATO demand

Sergey Lavrov. Photo: Dimitar DilkoffI/AFP via Getty Images

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Thursday that the United States' written answers to Russia's security demands do not contain a "positive response" to the Kremlin's top priority, which is a freeze on NATO expansion, according to Russian state media.

Why it matters: A spokesperson for the Kremlin stressed that no conclusions will be drawn until Russian President Vladimir Putin has time to analyze the papers, but a lack of movement on Russia's core concerns means the crisis over Ukraine is unlikely to de-escalate.

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