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