Intelligence

Brennan: Technological change tough for CIA

John Brennan

CIA Director John Brennan said "the cyber world is a double-edged sword" for the intelligence community.

It is a challenge for the CIA -- like any other organization public or private, big or small -- to factor an ever-changing digital world into its business model, Director John Brennan said last week in a rare public speech for an intelligence agency chief.

"In the business world, we have seen once-great corporations decline and collapse when they have failed to keep up with the times," Brennan said June 11 at Georgetown University, which touted his appearance as the CIA's first public national security conference. "To avoid that fate, CIA and our community partners must continually adapt if we are to compete with the ever-growing, ever-accelerating supply of information and analysis."

Cyberspace has leveled the intelligence playing field by allowing obscure criminals to conduct asymmetric attacks against nation-states, he added.

"For the intelligence community, the cyber world is a double-edged sword," Brennan said. "Digital footprints may enable us to track down a suspected terrorist, but they may leave our officers vulnerable as well."

Although the private sector has plenty of cyber vulnerabilities, "for the intelligence community, the problem is much more than cyberattacks per se," he added. "It is also about the technologies that make it possible to study bomb-making on the Internet, to case a target remotely and to coordinate among far-flung associates in order to carry out a sophisticated attack."

The growing digitization of the planet makes the job of intelligence agencies significantly harder, the 34-year CIA veteran argued. "Aided by the cyber domain, individuals and small groups -- not only nation-states -- now have the power to sow enormous destruction, greatly expanding the number of threats that our government must monitor to keep our nation safe," Brennan said. "Indeed, there is hardly an intelligence problem today that is not affected to a large degree by that digital domain."

Things are apparently much murkier for agents today compared to when he joined the CIA during the Cold War. Spying on the Soviets "carried little or no legal or moral ambiguity for us" because their communications were much easier to isolate, but the Internet has changed the game irrevocably by doing away with physical boundaries, Brennan said.

The agency is still grappling with what the glut of real-time information on the Web means for intelligence-gathering. "Today's 24/7 news outlets and social media provide instant coverage and analysis of global developments," Brennan said. "The near monopoly our stations and bases overseas once enjoyed in covering fast-breaking developments for policymakers, particularly in remote corners of the world, is long gone."

The CIA waded deeper into social media when it recently joined Twitter and Facebook, a move Brennan has hailed as a chance to engage with the public. He said he relished the opportunity to do so in a question-and-answer session after his June 11 speech.

"I think sometimes the narrative is distorted as far as what the intelligence agencies are doing, and I think it is important for us to be as open as we can in terms of the types of programs [and] activities that we are involved in," he said.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence issues. Prior to joining FCW, he was a reporter and editor at Smart Grid Today, where he covered everything from cyber vulnerabilities in the U.S. electric grid to the national energy policies of Britain and Mexico. His reporting on a range of global issues has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Economist, The Washington Diplomat and The Washington Post.

Lyngaas is an active member of the National Press Club, where he served as chairman of the Young Members Committee. He earned his M.A. in international affairs from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and his B.A. in public policy from Duke University.

Click here for previous articles by Lyngaas, or connect with him on Twitter: @snlyngaas.


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