As more government workers are sent home, coronavirus risks hobbling U.S. intelligence

Jenna McLaughlin
National Security and Investigations Reporter

WASHINGTON — The rapid spread of the coronavirus has sent a large number of federal workers home to telework, in some cases limiting government services, raising concerns that some of the nation’s highly sensitive national security work, which can often only be done in secure facilities, could suffer.

With national security agencies having to choose between forcing employees to show up for work — and risk getting infected — or staying home and not working, a number of people working in and around intelligence are raising the prospect that the work of espionage could be hampered.

“The COVID-19 pandemic provides an unprecedented challenge to the intelligence community,” said Larry Pfeiffer, the director of George Mason University’s Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security and a former senior intelligence officer. “They are operating with one hand tied behind their backs.”

The acting head of the Office of Management and Budget, Russel Vought, has continued to issue increasingly strict guidance to federal agencies to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Most federal employees are now working from home, including some White House staffers.

But for intelligence officers working on highly classified issues, whether satellite imagery of North Korean missile launches or an Iranian attack, telework often isn’t an option.

“It’s clear that government agencies plan for all sorts of crazy contingencies and things that may pop up, from acts of God to inclement weather to acts of terrorism. They’ve thought about and talked about pandemics,” said Evan Lesser, the co-founder of ClearanceJobs, a website and career network for workers with security clearances. “However, we’re definitely in uncharted territory at this point.”

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Senior officials are now trying to decide on strategies for dealing with the pandemic, and many agencies, including the Office of the Director of National intelligence (ODNI), the FBI and the Defense Intelligence Agency, are implementing shift work and social distancing in the office for essential personnel, according to current and former intelligence and national security officials. They are also authorizing others working on open source intelligence, or other less sensitive areas, to work remotely.

The ODNI “is reducing staff contact through a variety of options including staggered shifts, flexible schedules, and social distancing practices,” wrote a spokesperson in an email. Intelligence “agencies are also developing and implementing appropriate response plans consistent with federal guidelines and regulations.”

Remote work isn’t the only problem facing the intelligence community; its employees are also having to analyze and brief on threats, including the coronavirus itself, for a president who initially downplayed the severity of the pandemic. “Morale is super low,” said one former intelligence officer in touch with current employees.

However, Lesser says, intelligence officers are accustomed to risk and working through challenges. “Keep in mind, everyone with a security clearance understands they are willingly taking on risk,” he said. “The mission-critical national security work will go on.”

The impact of the pandemic is spread across the community in different ways. Many employees remain in their offices in Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities, or SCIFs, enclosed areas that are hardened against eavesdropping. Some work can be done from encrypted cellphones, and a number of top senior officials have rooms in their homes or nearby that are secured for remote work.

The community has even deployed “mobile” SCIFs in certain instances, including for briefing the president at major summits in foreign countries or for the FBI while monitoring major events. However, those options don’t extend to the vast majority of workers. 

Lesser of ClearanceJobs told Yahoo News that of his conversations with people in the intelligence field, workers fall into two categories: those that understand their jobs are critical and assume they will continue to come into the office, and those who are unsure whether their job duties are vital. “They’re trying to get understanding around it,” said Lesser.

As a result, the machinery of the intelligence community is slimming down, leading to smaller briefing teams and fewer analytic assessments going out to senior policymakers. For analysts who distribute their intelligence reports, it’s unclear whether their work is reaching the government officials who need to see them.

And for case officers and undercover officials with and without diplomatic immunity, the challenges of meeting with and cultivating foreign sources are only made harder. The coronavirus and the limitations it imposes on socializing could make large swaths of the globe almost inaccessible, wrote former CIA officers Alex Finley, Jonna Mendez and David Priess for legal blog Lawfare. 

The “biggest challenge [operations-wise] is meeting with agents worldwide,” said one former senior intelligence officer. “But we manage, as always.”

The coronavirus also threatens the contractors working on intelligence, a large bulk of the workforce. The Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA), a nonprofit trade association for current and former national security workers, asked top government officials “to bolster the health of government’s industry partners in the national security sector, which face dire financial straits as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Lawmakers working on a stimulus package to recharge a wilting economy are considering provisions that would dole out continued payment to contractors, or “equitable adjustments” for delays in completing projects. “This authority is greatly needed to ensure federal agencies maintain access to workers — including highly skilled cleared national security personnel — who can carry out their missions during this crisis and beyond,” said Larry Hanauer, INSA’s vice president of policy in an email to Yahoo News.

All federal agencies are required to have continuity-of-operations plans in case of a national emergency — to include pandemics — most of the preparations involve securing people in a facility rather than having them work remotely.

“They’ve got all sorts of plans for national emergencies,” said Greg Treverton, the former chair of the National Intelligence Council within the ODNI and current professor at University of Southern California. “But there wasn’t much effort at all as to how you might work remotely. … This is so unique,” he told Yahoo News. 

In years past, the focus of preparations for the intelligence community has been on external threats rather than disease.

“Global pandemics, although identified in worldwide threat assessments as of high priority, have surely never been resourced or funded with the priority of counterterrorism or regional threats like Iran,” said Pfeiffer, the former intelligence officer who served as chief of staff to former NSA and CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden. 

Another unique problem intelligence officials face if they work from home is being a target of foreign attacks or espionage. Employees accessing the internet at home, even for unclassified purposes, create cybersecurity risk, says Jamil Jaffer, senior vice president of strategy, partnerships and corporate development at IronNet Cybersecurity.

“Bad actors may take advantage of the fact that secure methods of communication can be harder to access or use, and may leverage that difficulty to push users to more insecure methods,” he said, citing a virtual private network being slow or malfunctioning as one such opportunity. “In this environment where more people are remote than usual, it’s something an adversary might be looking at,” continued Jaffer, who previously served in the White House, the Department of Justice’s National Security Division, and within the House Intelligence Committee. 

More generally, crises like the coronavirus present adversaries with a moment to get away with behavior that would normally elicit a strong U.S. response, such as attacks by Iranian proxies on American forces overseas, he said. “If they think that we are weak in this moment, they will continue to seek to exploit that perceived vulnerability.”

Lesser of ClearanceJobs says he is urging national security workers to not try and work from home, because it is inherently “not secure.”

“They should be watching what they talk about on the phone, even a secure phone, because if they live in an apartment or townhouse, they may be sharing walls,” Lesser said. “Who knows who’s listening.”

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