COVID-19 poses unprecedented operational challenges for America’s spy agencies

ODNI DNIAmerica’s Intelligence Community is facing unprecedented challenges as it tries to adjust to the coronavirus pandemic. These challenges are affecting every aspect of the intelligence cycle, including collection and dissemination functions. Moreover, spy agencies are hurriedly redirecting their analytical resources to combating COVID-19, thus slowing the pace of work on other areas of national security, according to Time magazine.

Recently the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the central coordinating authority of the United States Intelligence Community, said that it was adjusting its focus in order to monitor the COVID-19 pandemic, in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). At the same time, however, the ODNI said it had reduced the physical contact between its staff members, through various methods including “staggered shifts, flexible schedules and social distancing practices”. Similar methods are being followed by other agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, said Time.

On Thursday, the newsmagazine cited three anonymous intelligence officials who said that the Intelligence Community is quickly learning how to operate under conditions deemed unprecedented. Ideally, intelligence employees would work remotely. However, the classified digital communications networks of the Intelligence Community are not readily operational from remote locations. These include the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRN) for secret-level information, and the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS) for top-secret-level information. Remote stations can be installed, but it costs between $50,000 and $70,000 per station to do so, said Time.

Additionally, top secret intelligence that is designated as Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) must remain inside specially designated physical spaces known as Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIF). This poses problems, not only for remote operations, but also for social-distancing, as SCIFs tend to be relatively small in size. Many agencies are addressing the problem by “moving to split shifts to reduce the number of people at the office at given times” and separating personnel into “essential” and “non-essential”, but these definitions are still in the process of being determined.

Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting human intelligence collection, which involves the use of case officers to recruit foreign assets in order to extract information in accordance with national security directives. Countless case officers stationed around the world are currently finding it difficult to operate in cities that are either empty or under lock-down mandates. Their assets are also limited in the work that they can do, while it is expected that many will be infected by the coronavirus. One consolation to American intelligence agencies, said Time, is that their adversaries’ operations are also being hampered by the same pandemic.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 March 2020 | Research credit: J.M. | Permalink

US agencies in turf battle over classification level of COVID-19 meetings

Department of Health & Human ServicesA number of United States government officials have expressed dismay about the White House’s treatment of top-level meetings about the coronavirus (COVID-19) as classified, a move described by some as “not normal”. On Wednesday the Reuters news agency cited “four Trump administration officials” in claiming that several dozen meetings to discuss COVID-19 were held in top-secret settings. This, they say, was unnecessary and posed barriers to coming up with an effective response to the contagion. Other sources, however, claim that the meetings had to be classified because they included secret information on China.

The meetings in point have been held since mid-January at a high-security conference room located at the headquarters of the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) in Washington, DC. The HHS is largely in charge of the US government’s response to COVID-19, as it oversees several relevant agencies including the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From the very beginning, the National Security Council —a White House decision-making body chaired by the president— ordered that the meetings be treated as classified. This meant that participants had to have top-secret security clearances in order to attend.

This decision allegedly excluded several government officials from these meetings, including leading US government biosurveillance and biosecurity experts who should have had a place at those meetings. “We had some very critical people who did not have security clearances who could not go”, one source said. Reuters quotes an unnamed “high level former official […] in the George W. Bush administration” who describes the decision to limit access to these discussions “about a response to a public health crisis” as “not normal”. But another government source told Reuters that the meetings were classified because they “had to do with China”. Yet another source said that the small number of participants was necessary to prevent potentially damaging leaks to the media.

Meanwhile, Time magazine alleged on Wednesday that a timely report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), which includes a section on pandemics, has been delayed. In previous years, the report, entitled Worldwide Threat Assessment, has warned that the world is not prepared for new strains of influenza that could prompt a pandemic. The report was scheduled to be released to Congress on February 12, but it remains unaccounted for. Members of the intelligence committees in Congress told Time that they did not expect the report to be released any time soon.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 March 2020 | Permalink

Philippines summons US ambassador to protest negative intelligence report

Sung KimThe United States ambassador to the Philippines has been summoned by Manila in response to the publication of an American intelligence report that described President Rodrigo Duterte as a threat to democracy. The report, published on February 13, represents a joint assessment of worldwide challenges to the interests of the United States. It is compiled annually by all 16 member agencies that make up the US Intelligence Community. This year’s report focused on the administration of President Duterte, who has led a self-styled “war on drugs, corruption and crime” in the Philippines since he assumed office in June 2016.

By the government’s own account, Duterte’s war has left more than 4,000 people dead in the past 18 months. But some human rights groups estimate the number of deaths at 11,000 or even higher. The US intelligence report notes that Duterte declared martial law in the Philippines’ southern region of Mindanao, which is expected to remain in place for most of 2018. It expresses concerns about rumors that the government may continue to impose martial law indefinitely and that it may extend it nationwide. It also expresses concern about Duterte’s prior statements that he intends to turn his government into a “revolutionary regime”.

At a press conference in Manila, President Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque said that the US ambassador to the Philippines capital, Sung Kim, met with Salvador Medialdea on Tuesday. Medialdea is the president’s executive secretary, who is the highest-ranking official in Duterte’s office. According to Roque, Medialdea told the US ambassador that the Philippine embassy in Washington was prepared to “give US intelligence accurate information about the reality” of the political situation in the Philippines. He also informed Ambassador Kim that the Philippines president had respect for the rule of law. A statement issued by the US embassy in Manila said that Ambassador Kim informed Medialdea about “the nature of the […] report, which is based on widely available information”.

The meeting ended with the two officials reaffirming “the strength of the broad and deep bilateral relationship” between Washington and Manila. They also said that the US would continue to cooperate with the Philippines on political, economic and security issues. However, tensions between the two countries have been high all week. On Thursday, President Duterte accused the Central Intelligence Agency of funding Rappler.com, a very popular news and information website based in the Philippines and Indonesia, which he said was engaged in a systematic effort to undermine his administration.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 27 February 2018 | Permalink

US intelligence assessment describes Philippines leader as threat to democracy

Trump and DuterteA wide-ranging assessment by the United States Intelligence Community views the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, as a major threat to democracy and human rights in Southeast Asia. The report, published on February 13, represents a joint assessment of worldwide challenges to the interests of the United States. It is compiled annually by all 16 member agencies that make up the US Intelligence Community. This year’s report warns that democratic governance and human rights would continue to be “fragile” in 2018, because of the autocratic governing style of several national administrations. Many Southeast Asian governments were also corrupt and displayed nepotistic tendencies, says the report. It singles out the government of Myanmar, which has been widely criticized for its inhuman treatment of the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority. It also mentions the autocratic government of Thailand, which recently changed the country’s constitution, giving increased legislative powers to the country’s armed forces.

But much of the criticism in the report focuses on the administration of President Duterte, who has led a self-styled “war on drugs, corruption and crime” in the Philippines since he assumed office in June 2016. His critics in the Philippines and abroad have voiced strong objections to his aggressive tactics, which, by the government’s own account, have left more than 4,000 people dead in the past 18 months. Some human rights groups estimate the number of deaths at 11,000 or even higher. The US intelligence report notes that Duterte declared martial law in the Philippines’ southern region of Mindanao, which is expected to remain in place for most of 2018. It expresses concerns about rumors that the government may continue to impose martial law indefinitely and that it may extend it nationwide. It also expresses concern about Duterte’s prior statements that he intends to turn his government into a “revolutionary regime”.

On Tuesday, opposition lawmakers in the Philippines expressed concern about the US intelligence report and advised the Duterte administration to take its contents into consideration. But government representatives in Manila dismissed the US assessment as “myopic” and “speculative at best”. They insisted that the Philippines president “adheres to the rule of law” and would “remain loyal to the constitution” of the country. In November of last year, US President Donald Trump met Duterte during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Danang, Vietnam. Earlier in the year, the two men spoke on the phone. During that conversation, the American leader reportedly praised his Philippine counterpart for doing an “unbelievable job” in combating the drug trade in his country. Duterte is expected to visit the White House later this year.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 February 2018 | Permalink

Trump trying to assert control over intelligence agencies, say sources

Dan CoatsRelentless bureaucratic skirmishes between the White House and the United States Intelligence Community are occurring daily, with administration officials attempting to “seize the reins” of agencies, according to sources. The Associated Press reports that senior officials around US President Donald Trump continue to “deep[ly] distrust” the Intelligence Community”. This tendency is reportedly more prevalent among those of Mr. Trump’s senior political advisers who are “government newcomers” and have never before been privy to classified information or intelligence programs.

According to the Associated Press, the US president has been trying various ways to “seize the reins” of the Intelligence Community. The news agency cites unnamed “US officials” who claim that Mr. Trump and his senior advisers have requested that they be given access to raw intelligence. At the same time, they have expressed little interest in being exposed to the analysis of raw intelligence produced by intelligence professionals. Typically, White House officials will rely primarily on the expert opinions of intelligence analysts and will not seek to access the raw data that these opinions rest on. But it appears that Mr. Trump and his team of advisers do not think highly of the analytical assessments of the Intelligence Community, preferring instead to make up their own mind based on their own reading of raw intelligence reports. According to the Associated Press report, that appears to be one of the ways in which the White House has been trying to assert its power over the Intelligence Community.

Meanwhile, Mr. Trump’s advisers are pressing on with a comprehensive review of the structure and operations of the Intelligence Community. The review is now being led by Dan Coats, a Congressman from Indiana and former US Ambassador to Germany, who last month was confirmed to serve as the Director of National Intelligence. According to sources, Coats resisted initial plans by the White House to abolish the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which was set up after the 9/11 attacks to coordinate the work of the Intelligence Community. The Trump team still plans to “trim and optimize” the Intelligence Community, but probably will not outright dismantle agencies like the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, according to the Associated Press.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 April 2017 | Permalink | Research credit: SF

Trump removes DNI, reinstates CIA on the National Security Council

Trump CIAThe White House announced on Monday a revised policy that reinstates the Central Intelligence Agency on the National Security Council. Chaired by the president, the NSC was established 70 years ago as a forum to provide the commander-in-chief with advice from senior civilian and military officials before making key decisions on domestic and foreign affairs. Principal attendees of the NSC include the US vice president, the secretaries of state, defense, and energy, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the director of national intelligence. Last week, the White House removed the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence from the Principals Committee —the core participants— of the NSC. A statement from the White House said that they would be invited to join the Principals Committee only when “issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed”.

On Monday, a new statement by the White House revised last week’s memorandum, by listing the director of the CIA as a “regular attendee” in NSC meetings. When asked by journalists about the change, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer explained that “[t]he president has such respect for [CIA] Director [Mike] Pompeo and the men and women of the CIA, that today the president is announcing that he will amend the memo to add the CIA back into the NSC”.

Throughout the Cold War, the CIA was viewed as the most powerful and influential agency in the US Intelligence Community. It answered directly to the president and its director mediated between the White House and all of the nation’s intelligence agencies. That changed in 2005, when the administration of George W. Bush established the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as the central coordinating body of the US Intelligence Community. In the same year, the Bush administration replaced the CIA director’s place in the NSC with the DNI. Since that time, the DNI has acted as the de facto intelligence representative on the NSC. But Monday’s memorandum changes that, by essentially removing the DNI from the NSC and replacing him with the director of the CIA. Some believe that the change is bound to create tension between the DNI and the CIA, two agencies that have had a stormy relationship in the past decade. The CIA and the ODNI have not yet commented on the amended memorandum issued by the White House.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 31 January 2017 | Permalink

Senior US intelligence official tells Congress not to ‘micromanage’ spy efforts

James ClapperThe United States’ senior intelligence officer has told Congress that new legislation requiring spy agencies to act against alleged Russian covert operations constitutes “micromanagement” of the American Intelligence Community. The Intelligence Authorization bill, which includes a number of intelligence-related requirements and provisions, is debated and enacted each year by Congress. This year’s legislation has already been approved by the intelligence committees of the Senate and House of Representatives. Last week it was enacted by the House, while the Senate is preparing to debate it this week.

The legislation currently under debate includes instructions to the US Intelligence Community to set up an interagency committee to formulate responses to perceived Russian covert operations around the world. The term ‘covert operations’ refers to actions by intelligence agencies designed to influence foreign political, military or economic affairs or events. The topic received media attention during the 2016 US presidential election, when Washington repeatedly accused Moscow of trying to shape its outcome. This year’s Intelligence Authorization bill requires every US intelligence agency to appoint a representative to serve on a joint panel that will address alleged Russian covert operations in the US, Europe and elsewhere in the world.

But in September of this year, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, America’s most senior intelligence official, authored a letter to Congress arguing that the requirement for an interagency panel to look into Russian covert operations should be scrapped. According to the Reuters news agency, which said last week that it saw a copy of the letter, Clapper argues that his letter echoes the unanimous view of the US Intelligence Community. He goes on to claim that the requirement to set up a special committee with an operational focus exceeds Congress’ role of overseer of the Intelligence Community and enters the realm of prescribing intelligence tasks. That, says Clapper in his letter, amounts to “micromanagement” of the Intelligence Community by Congress. Furthermore, he argues, the Intelligence Community has already taken steps to address Russian covert operations, thus the suggested panel would “duplicate current work” on the issue. Finally, Clapper’s letter suggests that the required panel would “hinder cooperation” with some of America’s overseas allies, though the Reuters report did not explain the precise justification for that claim.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 December 2016 | Permalink