Cybersecurity

How (and why) the CIA plans to expand cyber capabilities

Shutterstock image: cyber eye.

CIA Director John Brennan's plan to ramp up the agency's cyber espionage capabilities and compete in a space the intelligence community has increasingly prioritized involves better integrating cybersecurity into human intelligence operations.

The agency's plans, first reported by the Washington Post, involve boosting humint efforts by dispatching cyber specialists beyond their traditional enclave at the Information Operations Center, which analyzes foreign threats to U.S. computer systems, a former senior CIA official told FCW. Embedding cyber specialists into CIA operational divisions would help the cyber hands find better IT tools to support agency operations, the former official, who asked not to be identified, said.

Stephen Slick, another former CIA official who now heads the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said the agency would do well to focus more on cyberspace.

"To the extent that the director's plans may involve highlighting cyber issues, that's entirely appropriate -- even overdue," Slick wrote in an email to FCW and other news outlets. "Advances in digital technology are having a revolutionary impact on the intelligence business, and it's important for CIA to adapt its collection and covert action missions to account for the new opportunities and dangers that are presented."

Brennan's "plans call for increased use of cyber capabilities in almost every category of operations," from recruiting informants to attacking the Islamic State, the Post reported. The CIA director has also considered creating a "cyber-directorate" at the agency that would elevate the role of IT experts in intelligence operations, the report says, citing current and former CIA officials.

The reported cyber plans are part of a larger, ongoing reevaluation of the agency's operations and personnel. CIA spokesman Dean Boyd said the agency had no comment on the reported cyber plans "given that final decisions have not yet been made with respect to internal agency modernization efforts."

A source close to the House Intelligence Committee, however, told FCW that Brennan gave the the panel's leadership a general overview of the agency's reorganization plans but hardly any information on the cyber component. The committee is awaiting more details on the CIA's reported cyber plans, that source said.

Communication on cybersecurity policy has previously been a point of contention between the Obama administration and Congress. House Intelligence Committee members were irked that they were not briefed ahead of the administration's recent announcement of a new cyber intelligence agency, the source said.

Overshadowed by NSA

Brennan has described cyberspace as a "double-edged sword" for the intelligence community. "Digital footprints may enable us to track down a suspected terrorist, but they may leave our officers vulnerable as well," he said in a speech at Georgetown University last June.

The CIA's cyber capabilities are generally overshadowed by those of the National Security Agency, which has more manpower to tackle cyberspace and often budgetary support to boot. The CIA requested $685.4 million for computer network operations in fiscal 2013, compared with $1 billion requested by the NSA, according to a classified budget former NSA contractor Edward Snowden shared with the Washington Post.

Boyd, the CIA spokesman, would not comment when asked how many IT experts the agency has on staff.

The CIA sometimes supplements the NSA's cyber work with its own human spying, according to journalist Shane Harris. For example, the CIA's Technology Management Office has helped an elite NSA hacking unit known as the Tailored Access Operations office break into computer networks to conduct cyber espionage, Harris reports in his book @War.

With the news of the CIA's cyber plans came speculation that the move might create tension with the NSA. But Andrew Borene, an adviser to the Truman National Security Project, said a "turf war" is unlikely. "I don't think it creates tension between the agencies, nor do I think that folks at Fort Meade are going to get concerned that the CIA is encroaching on their turf," said Borene, a former associate deputy general counsel at the Defense Department. He added that, given how much money federal agencies are allocating for IT, it would be bigger news if the CIA wasn't following that trend.

"A little competition isn't a bad thing," said Ken Ammon, chief strategy officer at software firm Xceedium, referring to potential NSA-CIA competition in developing cyber capabilities. The CIA's further focus on cyberspace was inevitable given that the agency's human intelligence mission is thoroughly intertwined with online identities, added Ammon, a former Air Force liaison to the NSA.

The CIA's reported plans to expand its cyber capabilities come as the broader intelligence community places greater emphasis on the field. In a January speech, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers put insecurity in cyberspace on par with terrorism as the biggest immediate threats to U.S. national security.

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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