At­tempt to lead CIA into age of cy­ber­war

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

When Amer­ica goes to the polls on Nov 8, ac­cord­ing to cur­rent and for­mer US in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials, it will likely ex­pe­ri­ence the culmination of a new form of in­for­ma­tion war. A months-long cam­paign backed by the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment to un­der­mine the cred­i­bil­ity of the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion - through hacking, cy­ber at­tacks and dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns - is likely to peak on vot­ing day, the of­fi­cials said.

Rus­sian of­fi­cials deny any such ef­fort. But cur­rent and for­mer US of­fi­cials warn that hack­ers could post fic­tional ev­i­dence on­line of wide­spread voter fraud, slow the In­ter­net to a crawl through cy­ber at­tacks and re­lease a fi­nal tranche of hacked emails, in­clud­ing some that could be doc­tored. “Don’t un­der­es­ti­mate what they can do or will do. We have to be pre­pared,” said Leon Panetta, who served as CIA di­rec­tor and de­fense sec­re­tary in Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s first term. “In some ways, they are suc­ceed­ing at dis­rupt­ing our process. Un­til they pay a price, they will keep do­ing it.”

John Brennan, the cur­rent CIA di­rec­tor, de­clined to com­ment on the Rus­sian ef­forts. But he said Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tives have a long his­tory of mar­ry­ing tra­di­tional es­pi­onage with ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy. More broadly, Brennan said, the dig­i­tal age cre­ates enor­mous op­por­tu­ni­ties for es­pi­onage. But it also cre­ates vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. Cit­ing an ar­ray of new cy­ber, con­ven­tional and ter­ror­ist threats, Brennan an­nounced the most sweep­ing re­forms of the CIA in its 69-year his­tory 18 months ago.

Weak­en­ing the role of the Direc­torate of Op­er­a­tions, the agency’s long-dom­i­nant arm re­spon­si­ble for gath­er­ing in­tel­li­gence and con­duct­ing covert op­er­a­tions, Brennan cre­ated 10 new “mis­sion cen­ters” where CIA spies, an­a­lysts and hack­ers work to­gether in teams fo­cused on spe­cific re­gions and is­sues. He also cre­ated a new Direc­torate for Dig­i­tal In­no­va­tion to max­i­mize the agency’s use of tech­nol­ogy, data an­a­lyt­ics and on­line spy­ing.

The in­for­ma­tion age “has to­tally trans­formed the way we are able to op­er­ate and need to op­er­ate,” Brennan told Reuters in a series of in­ter­views. “Most hu­man in­ter­ac­tions take place in that dig­i­tal do­main. So the in­tel­li­gence pro­fes­sion needs to flour­ish in that do­main. It can­not avoid it.”

When a new Amer­i­can diplo­mat ar­rives for duty at the US em­bassy in Moscow or Bei­jing, CIA of­fi­cial say, Rus­sian and Chi­nese in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tives run data an­a­lyt­ics pro­grams that check the “dig­i­tal dust” as­so­ci­ated with his or her name. If the new­comer’s foot­print in that dust - so­cial me­dia posts, cell phone calls, debit card pay­ments - is too small, the “diplo­mat” is flagged as an un­der­cover CIA of­fi­cer.

The Rus­sian-backed cam­paign to dis­credit the US elec­tion is not iso­lated. Hack­ers be­lieved to have links to Chi­nese in­tel­li­gence be­gan steal­ing the per­sonal in­for­ma­tion of 22 mil­lion fed­eral em­ploy­ees and job ap­pli­cants in 2014, the worst known data breach in US gov­ern­ment his­tory. Is­lamic State’s on­line pro­pa­gan­dists con­tinue to in­spire lone wolf at­tacks in the United States even as the group loses ter­ri­tory. A se­nior of­fi­cial from the Direc­torate of Op­er­a­tions, who backs the shake-up, said the agency is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing its great­est test in decades.

The Dig­i­tal De­bate

“The amount of threats and chal­lenges that are fac­ing this or­ga­ni­za­tion and this na­tion are greater than at any time in the last 30 years,” said the of­fi­cial, who de­clined to be named. “The days of a black pass­port, a fist­ful of dol­lars and a Brown­ing pis­tol are over.” James Clap­per, the Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence, praised Brennan and his ef­forts to re­tool the CIA for a new era in an in­ter­view. So did Lisa Monaco, Brennan’s suc­ces­sor as the Pres­i­dent Obama’s Home­land Se­cu­rity and Coun­tert­er­ror­ism ad­viser.

But some cur­rent and for­mer of­fi­cials ques­tion Brennan’s strat­egy, ar­gu­ing his re­forms are too dig­i­tally fo­cused and will cre­ate a more cau­tious, top-heavy spy agency. At a time when the agency needs to re­fo­cus its ef­forts on hu­man es­pi­onage, they say, the con­cen­tra­tion of power in the new mis­sion cen­ters weak­ens the abil­ity of the Direc­torate of Op­er­a­tions to pro­duce a new gen­er­a­tion of elite Amer­i­can spies.

The re­forms have hurt morale, cre­ated con­fu­sion and con­sumed time and at­ten­tion at a time of myr­iad threats, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views with ten for­mer of­fi­cials. Glenn Carle, a for­mer CIA covert of­fi­cer, sup­ports Brennan and his re­forms but said they have sparked a mixed re­ac­tion among direc­torate of op­er­a­tions of­fi­cials who be­lieve hu­man in­tel­li­gence is get­ting short shrift. “The value the CIA can fun­da­men­tally add is to steal se­crets, and the ul­ti­mate se­cret is in­ten­tion,” the of­ten in­scrutable aims of for­eign lead­ers, Carle said. “Ob­tain­ing that is a hu­man en­deavor.”

At the same time, Brennan has stirred a dif­fer­ent sort of crit­i­cism that he has de­fied Con­gres­sional over­sight. Lib­eral Democrats and lib­er­tar­ian Repub­li­cans in Congress say the Brennan-Obama ten­ure has been tar­nished by a lack of trans­parency with con­gres­sional over­sight com­mit­tees and the pub­lic re­gard­ing sur­veil­lance, drone strikes and the agency’s use of tor­ture against ter­ror­ism sus­pects dur­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Ge­orge W. Bush.

“While I think John’s over­all legacy will be as a re­former, that legacy will suf­fer from his re­fusal to come to grips with the CIA’s trou­bled tor­ture pro­gram,” said Sen­a­tor Dianne Fe­in­stein, D-Calif, vice chair of the Se­nate’s in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee. “I think the new pres­i­dent’s CIA di­rec­tor must pri­or­i­tize a high level of trust be­tween the CIA and Congress to in­sure proper over­sight is con­ducted.”

It’s un­clear how closely the coun­try’s next pres­i­dent will hew to Brennan’s strat­egy. The front-run­ner, Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton, has an in­cen­tive to beef up Amer­i­can cy­ber-es­pi­onage: US in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials blame the con­tin­u­ing leak of emails from her cam­paign on Rus­sian-backed hacking. Clin­ton also ex­pressed sup­port for covert ac­tion in a tran­script of a 2013 speech she gave to Gold­man Sachs that was re­cently re­leased by Wik­ileaks.

Repub­li­can Don­ald Trump, mean­while, pledged to make cy­ber­se­cu­rity a top pri­or­ity in his ad­min­is­tra­tion in an Oc­to­ber 3 speech. “For non-state ter­ror ac­tors, the United States must de­velop the abil­ity - no mat­ter how dif­fi­cult - to track down and in­ca­pac­i­tate those re­spon­si­ble and do it rapidly,” Trump said. “We should turn cy­ber war­fare into one of our great­est weapons against the ter­ror­ists.”

In in­ter­views at agency head­quar­ters in Lan­g­ley, Vir­ginia, Brennan de­clined to com­ment on ei­ther can­di­date or dis­cuss op­er­a­tional de­tails of the CIA. But he and eight other se­nior CIA of­fi­cials gave the most de­tailed de­scrip­tion yet of their ra­tio­nale for the most rad­i­cal re­vamp of the agency since its found­ing in 1947. “I look out at the next 10, 20, 30 years, and I look at tech­nol­ogy, I look at com­plex­ity, I look at the global en­vi­ron­ment,” Brennan said. “I think CIA re­ally needs to up its game.”

Just-War The­o­rist

Brennan, a 61-year-old na­tive of north New Jer­sey, looks like a line­backer but talks like a tech­no­crat. He speaks ex­cit­edly about how the CIA and other gov­ern­ment bu­reau­cra­cies can be con­fig­ured in “a way to en­sure op­ti­mal out­comes”. The son of de­vout-Catholic Ir­ish im­mi­grants, Brennan speaks rev­er­ently of CIA of­fi­cers as pub­lic ser­vants who risk their lives with­out pub­lic ac­co­lades. He joined the agency in 1980, at the age of 24, after re­ceiv­ing a Master’s De­gree in gov­ern­ment with a con­cen­tra­tion in Mid­dle East­ern stud­ies from the Univer­sity of Texas.

Ed­u­cated in var­i­ous Catholic schools, in­clud­ing Ford­ham Univer­sity, Brennan says he is an ad­her­ent of just-war the­ory - a cen­turies-old Chris­tian the­o­log­i­cal ar­gu­ment that war is jus­ti­fied when it is waged in self de­fense, as a last re­sort and min­i­mizes civil­ian ca­su­al­ties. Those be­liefs, he says, have guided him in one of the most con­tro­ver­sial as­pects of his ten­ure in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

As Obama’s White House counter-ter­ror­ism ad­viser and CIA di­rec­tor, Brennan played a cen­tral role in car­ry­ing out 473 US airstrikes out­side con­ven­tional war zones be­tween 2009 and 2015, pri­mar­ily by drone. US of­fi­cials es­ti­mate the at­tacks have killed 2,372 to 2,581 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 64 to 116 civil­ians. Hu­man rights groups say the to­tals are vastly higher. Last year, for in­stance, a US drone strike in Pak­istan ac­ci­den­tally killed Amer­i­can aid worker War­ren We­in­stein and Ital­ian aid worker Gio­vanni Lo Porto, who were both be­ing held cap­tive by al Qaeda.

Brennan de­clined to com­ment on spe­cific strikes, but said, “I still can look my­self in the mir­ror ev­ery day and be­lieve that I have tried to do what is morally right, what is nec­es­sary, and what is im­por­tant to keep this coun­try safe.” He also ac­knowl­edged mis­takes. “You ques­tion your­self. You beat your­self up. You try to learn from it,” Brennan said, in a rare dis­play of emo­tions. “But you also rec­og­nize that if you’re not pre­pared to make the tough de­ci­sions in the jobs that have been en­trusted to you, you shouldn’t be in those jobs.”

To­day, Brennan says the United States faces the most com­plex ar­ray of threats he has seen since join­ing the agency 36 years ago. As a CIA an­a­lyst, op­er­a­tive and ex­ec­u­tive, he has lived through the Cold War es­pi­onage du­els of the 1980s; the dis­in­te­gra­tion of na­tion-states after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall; the rise of non-state ter­ror­ist groups since 2001; and the cur­rent dig­i­tal dis­rup­tion. Now, he says, all four dy­nam­ics are con­verg­ing at once.

Bold and In­no­va­tive Ri­vals

CIA of­fi­cials say their great­est state com­peti­tors are the Rus­sian and Chi­nese in­tel­li­gence ser­vices. While smaller coun­tries or ter­ror­ist groups may want to strike at the United States, Rus­sia and China are the only two ad­ver­saries with the com­bi­na­tion of skills, re­sources and mo­ti­va­tion needed to chal­lenge Wash­ing­ton. In re­cent years, Moscow’s Fed­eral Se­cu­rity Ser­vice, or FSB, has be­come adept at wag­ing “gray zone” con­flicts in Ukraine, Crimea and Syria, the of­fi­cials said. In all three coun­tries, Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tives have deftly shrouded pro­tag­o­nists, ob­jec­tives and war crimes in am­bi­gu­ity.

One tar­get is Amer­ica’s in­creas­ingly po­lit­i­cally po­lar­ized democ­racy. As Rus­sian-backed hacking un­folded this sum­mer, the Obama White House’s re­sponse fu­eled frus­tra­tion among law en­force­ment and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials, ac­cord­ing to cur­rent and for­mer of­fi­cials. The ad­min­is­tra­tion, they said, seemed to have no clear pol­icy for how to re­spond to a new form of in­for­ma­tion war­fare with no rules, norms or, it seemed, lim­its.

White House of­fi­cials said the ad­min­is­tra­tion is still con­sid­er­ing var­i­ous meth­ods of re­spond­ing, but the re­sponses won’t nec­es­sar­ily be made pub­lic. China presents an­other chal­lenge. Chi­nese busi­ness­men and stu­dents con­tinue try­ing to scoop up Amer­i­can state and eco­nomic se­crets. In one bright spot, Bei­jing ap­pears to be abid­ing by a 2015 pact signed by Obama and Chi­nese leader Xi Jin­ping that the two gov­ern­ments would not con­duct eco­nomic es­pi­onage against one an­other. Chi­nese hacking ap­pears to have slowed from the vo­ra­cious rate of the past, which in­cluded hacking into the com­put­ers of the 2008 pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns of John McCain and Barack Obama but not re­leas­ing what was found.

“The ques­tion is whether or not it is due to greater care in terms of cov­er­ing one’s tracks,” Brennan said of the ap­par­ent change. “Or whether or not they re­al­ize that they’re brand is be­ing tar­nished by this very ra­pa­cious ap­petite for vac­u­um­ing up things.” Re­gional pow­ers are also in­creas­ing their dig­i­tal es­pi­onage ef­forts. In 2014, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion blamed North Korea for the hacking of Sony Pic­tures’ com­puter sys­tem. This spring, US pros­e­cu­tors in­dicted seven Ira­nian hack­ers for al­legedly try­ing to shut down a New York dam and con­duct­ing a cy­ber at­tack on dozens of US banks. They also in­dicted three Syr­ian mem­bers of the “Syr­ian Elec­tronic Army,” a pro-Syr­ian gov­ern­ment group, who hacked into the web­sites of US gov­ern­ment agen­cies, cor­po­ra­tions and news or­ga­ni­za­tions.

In a 2015 case that US of­fi­cials said marks a wor­ry­ing new trend, fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors in­dicted a 20-year-old hacker from Kosovo. With the help of a crim­i­nal hacker, Ardit Fer­izi stole the home ad­dresses of 1,300 mem­bers of the US mil­i­tary, pro­vid­ing the in­for­ma­tion to Is­lamic State and post­ing it on­line, and call­ing for at­tacks on the in­di­vid­u­als. Fer­izi was ar­rested in Malaysia, where he was study­ing com­puter sci­ence. In Septem­ber, he pleaded guilty in a US fed­eral court and was sen­tenced to 20 years in prison.

“This blend of the crim­i­nal ac­tor, the na­tion-state ac­tor and the ter­ror­ist ac­tor, that’s go­ing to be the trend over the next five years,” said John Car­lin, who re­cently stepped down as head of the Jus­tice Depart­ment divi­sion that mon­i­tors for­eign es­pi­onage in the United States.

But some ac­tive clan­des­tine of­fi­cers ar­gue that the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity has grown too re­liant on tech­nol­ogy, a trend they trace back four decades to the di­rec­tor­ship of Stans­field Turner. Satel­lite pho­tog­ra­phy, re­mote sen­sors and com­mu­ni­ca­tions in­ter­cepts have be­come more so­phis­ti­cated, but so have en­cryp­tion tech­niques and anti-satel­lite weapons.

More im­por­tant, they ar­gue, is that tech­nol­ogy is no sub­sti­tute for “pen­e­tra­tions” - plant­ing or re­cruit­ing hu­man spies in for­eign halls of power. The CIA missed In­dia’s 1998 nu­clear tests and mis­judged Sad­dam Hus­sein’s ar­se­nal in 2003 be­cause it lacked spies in the right places.

To­day, these cur­rent and for­mer CIA of­fi­cials con­tend, Amer­i­can pol­i­cy­mak­ers have lit­tle in­sight into the think­ing of Vladimir Putin’s in­ner cir­cle. Pres­i­dents, kings and dic­ta­tors of­ten don’t share their true in­ten­tions elec­tron­i­cally, putting this valu­able in­for­ma­tion largely be­yond the scope of dig­i­tal spy­ing. The best sources are still peo­ple, and these of­fi­cials be­lieve the agency is not mount­ing the kind of bold hu­man spy­ing op­er­a­tions it did in the past.

Brennan and other CIA of­fi­cials flatly de­nied down­play­ing hu­man in­tel­li­gence. They said ag­gres­sive, high-risk hu­man spy­ing is un­der way but they can­not go into op­er­a­tional de­tail. One of Brennan’s pre­de­ces­sors, Michael Hay­den, for­mer CIA chief un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush, says the agency strayed from its core mis­sion dur­ing the Bush years. After the Al Qaeda at­tacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Hay­den said, the CIA had shift to be­come a para­mil­i­tary or­ga­ni­za­tion that de­voted its most tal­ented of­fi­cers to track­ing and killing ter­ror­ists. It now needs to re­verse that trend by fo­cus­ing on es­pi­onage against ri­val na­tions, he said.

“The con­stant com­bat of the last 15 years has pushed the ex­per­tise of the case of­fi­cer in the di­rec­tion of the bat­tle­field and in the di­rec­tion of col­lect­ing in­tel­li­gence to cre­ate phys­i­cal ef­fects,” said Hay­den, us­ing an in­tel­li­gence eu­phemism for killing. “At the ex­pense of what the old guys called long-range, coun­try-on-coun­try in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing.”

‘Op­ti­miz­ing Ca­pa­bil­i­ties’

Brennan and the eight other se­nior CIA of­fi­cials made the case that their mod­ern­iza­tion ef­fort will ad­dress the needs and threats de­scribed by Hay­den and oth­ers. Tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances, they said, have lev­eled the in­tel­li­gence play­ing field. The web’s low cost of en­try, cre­ativ­ity and speed ben­e­fits gov­ern­ments, hack­ers and ter­ror­ists alike.

A vet­eran covert op­er­a­tive who runs a new CIA mis­sion cen­ter com­pared Brennan’s re­forms to the Gold­wa­ter-Ni­chols Act. The land­mark 1986 leg­is­la­tion re­or­ga­nized the US mil­i­tary into a half dozen re­gional com­mands where the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines work to­gether. It was a re­sponse to in­ter-ser­vice ri­val­ries that be­dev­iled the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary in Viet­nam.

The CIA equiv­a­lent in­volves hav­ing the agency’s five main di­rec­torates - Op­er­a­tions (covert spies), Anal­y­sis (trends and pre­dic­tion), Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy (lis­ten­ing de­vices and other gad­getry) and Dig­i­tal In­no­va­tion (on­line sleuthing) and Sup­port (lo­gis­tics) - pro­vide the per­son­nel needed by each re­gional mis­sion cen­ter.

An­drew Hall­man, di­rec­tor of the new Direc­torate for Dig­i­tal In­no­va­tion, said the CIA has em­braced cloud com­put­ing as a way to bet­ter share in­tel­li­gence. In a move that shocked in­sid­ers and out­siders, the CIA awarded an $600 mil­lion con­tract to Ama­zon in 2013 to build a se­cure cloud com­put­ing sys­tem where mul­ti­ple CIA data­bases can be quickly ac­cessed.

For decades, dif­fer­ent di­rec­torates main­tained their own sep­a­rate data­bases as a se­cu­rity mea­sure, said Hall­man. Some of the ap­pli­ca­tions the agency used were so old - up to 30 years - that the man­u­fac­turer was no longer in busi­ness. Turn­ing to Ama­zon was de­signed to im­me­di­ately put pri­vate-sec­tor com­put­ing ad­vances at the fin­ger­tips of CIA op­er­a­tives. It was also an ad­mis­sion that it was eas­ier for the agency to buy in­no­va­tion from the pri­vate sec­tor than try to cre­ate it in­ter­nally. —Reuters

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