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Locked down and increasingly inward-looking, Americans shrug at losing their secrets

By Tom Baxter

Over these long months of lockdown and quarantine, our country has been the target of one of the biggest and most successful espionage efforts in history, one which the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said last week “poses a grave risk to the federal government.”

There are a lot of technical questions to be asked about how a single IT management company, SolarWinds, gave hackers backdoor access to such a vast trove of private government networks, from Native American tribal councils to the agencies which manage the nation’s nuclear stockpile, not to mention those of private tech companies and other nations. From initial reports it looks like it will be years before this mess can be straightened out.

The political question is, where’s the shock over this? Where’s the outrage, the handwringing and even despair we might have expected if such a thing had happened in the middle of the Cold War? Why aren’t members of Congress, and Georgia’s four Senate candidates, being pressed on the issue?

Well, there is the president. Donald Trump tweeted Saturday that he had “been fully briefed and everything is well under control,” and argued that the hackers could have been Chinese and not Russian, as most experts as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said. Then he suggested the same hackers might have interfered with the voting machines in the November election.

Let’s say it was the Chinese who accomplished this hack. The news is still terrible, and raises profound national security questions. Trump is able to give this revelation short shrift not because of which country did it, but because the loss of so much sensitive information to a hostile foreign power doesn’t register with as much force on an American public grown increasingly inward-looking in its politics.

In another time, evidence of foreign infiltration might have stirred a destructive over-reaction. This is just the opposite. Numbed by their own experience with malware, people may have a hard time grasping the enormity of the SolarWinds hack.

It’s been speculated the hack could be an answer to the successes the United States has had in stifling Russian efforts to impact the 2020 election. Without question, it’s part of a long game of cyber espionage involving the U.S., Russia and China. But the Americans who know this game best agree that this hack is a stunning achievement, giving the Russians — or Chinese, if you will — access to vast troves of information from the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, Treasury and Commerce, and the National Institutes of Health.

Over the past 10 months, while we have been getting hacked, the Chinese have gathered a load of dust and gravel on the moon and returned it successfully to earth. The Japanese have brought back samples from an asteroid.

The international effort to find and manufacture vaccines for COVID-19 in record time, in which the United State played a leading role, is the outstanding scientific achievement of the year. But the East, including Australia and New Zealand, has fared far better than the West in limiting the impact of the virus and getting its economies back on track. This is not the same planet it was a year ago.

The United States’ closest ally, the United Kingdom, currently faces the prospect of a no-deal departure from the European Union at the same time its neighbors are banning UK air flights due to the outbreak of a new strain of the coronavirus. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a symbol of European stability, is planning her exit from the public stage over the coming year.

Fresh on the heels of the Russian’s espionage triumph came the story — almost like a segment from a “Borat” movie — of opposition leader Alexei Navalny recording one of the Russian spies who poisoned him explaining how he did it in a phone conversation. The Russians can be both skillful and clumsy, which makes them dangerous.

Joe Biden has assembled an experienced team and promised to bring the U.S. back into line with traditional foreign policy, but until the pandemic is put to rest, his administration isn’t likely to regain its prominence on the world stage. And we know that that a lot of what we thought was confidential, no longer is.

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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