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Cyberattacks and infowars: How the CIA is adapting to threats in the digital era

When America goes to the polls on Nov. 8, according to current and former U.S. 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 U.S. presidential election — through hacking, cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns — is likely to peak on voting day, the officials said.

Russian officials deny any such effort. But current and former U.S. 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 defence secretary in U.S. 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.

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Russian hackers are suspected of interfering with the U.S. election via WikiLeaks and experts say this campaign will peak when voters head to the polls on Nov. 8. (Carlos Barria, RIA/Reuters)

How CIA is adapting to digital threats

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 centres” 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.”

‘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.’
– Directorate of Operations senior official 

A senior official from the Directorate of Operations, who backs the shake-up, said the agency is experiencing its greatest test in decades.

“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.”

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. 

​Russia and China the biggest threats 

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, CIA operatives say.

In recent years, Moscow’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, has become adept at waging “grey 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.

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U.S. President Barack Obama, left, pictured with his Chinese and Russian counterparts, Xi Jinping, right, and Vladimir Putin, at the the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit. When it comes to cyberattacks, China and Russia pose the greatest threats to the U.S. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Reuters)

One target is the U.S.’s increasingly politically polarized democracy. As Russian-backed hacking unfolded this summer, the Obama White House’s response fuelled 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.”

Calls for more old-fashioned spy work 

Some active clandestine officers argue that the intelligence community has grown too reliant on technology.

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, U.S. 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 underway but they cannot go into operational detail.

The lingering effects of 9/11 

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 shifted 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.”

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.

The downside of centralized national security 

A veteran covert operative who runs a new CIA mission centre compared Brennan’s reforms to the Goldwater-Nichols Act. The landmark 1986 legislation reorganized the U.S. 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 centre. 

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(Reuters)

Several former CIA officials criticized the new team-focused system, saying it dilutes the cultures that made each agency directorate strong. The best analysts are deeply skeptical and need to be separated from covert operatives to avoid group-think, they said. And the best covert operatives are famously arrogant, a trait needed to carry out the extraordinarily difficult task of convincing foreigners to spy for the U.S.

‘The Chinese are taking tough decisions, the Russians are taking tough decisions and we are taking risk-averse decisions. And we are going to pay a price for that down the road.’
– Richard Blee. former CIA officer 

Richard Blee, a former CIA clandestine officer, said the agency needed reform but highlighted a separate problem created by technological change. Instant secure communications between CIA headquarters and officers in the field has centralized decision-making in Washington, Blee said.

And regardless of administration, senior officials in Washington are less willing to take a risk than field officers —virtually all of whom complain about headquarters’ excessive caution.

“The mentality across the board in Washington is to take the lowest common denominator, the easiest option, the risk-free option,” Blee said. “The Chinese are taking tough decisions, the Russians are taking tough decisions and we are taking risk-averse decisions. And we are going to pay a price for that down the road.”

Brennan says his reforms will empower CIA officers: The integrated teams in each new mission centre will improve speed, adaptability and effectiveness.

“To me, that’s going to be the secret of success in the future, not just for CIA but for other organizational structures,” Brennan said. “Taking full advantage of the tools, capabilities, people and expertise that you have.”

Old ways of spycraft, Brennan argues, are no longer tenable.