CIA Steps Up Its Game in Cyberfight Against Hackers
Policy + Politics

CIA Steps Up Its Game in Cyberfight Against Hackers


The CIA is making a great leap into the 21st century.

As part of a broader reorganization, the clandestine agency this month launched its first new directorate in more than 50 years, designed to expand the agency’s cyber-espionage efforts and its fight against hackers. Director John Brennan called the move “a key milestone” in the CIA’s broader modernization efforts.

Here’s a guide to the agency’s new cyber-spying overhaul:

What is this new directorate?
It’s called the Directorate of Digital Innovation, and the CIA says it’s supposed to “accelerate the infusion of advanced digital and cyber capabilities across the Agency.” In other words, it’s meant to build up the CIA’s use of technology for cybersecurity and to enhance the capabilities of spies on the ground and “human intelligence” or “humint.” As Wired explained when the changes were first announced in March: “That combination of humint and digital operations could mean a spy infiltrating an organization to plant spyware by hand, for instance, or a digital investigation to check the bona fides of a source or agent.”

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As part of its reorganization, the CIA has also created ten new “mission centers” that put analysis and operators together in units focused on certain regions and security threats. Those mission centers cover six geographical regions — Africa, East Asia and Pacific, Europe and Eurasia, Near East, South and Central Asia and the Western Hemisphere — and four functional areas: counterintelligence, counterterrorism, global issues and weapons and counterproliferation.

“[T]he modernization effort is about much more than changing the way CIA is organized; it is about how we work together every day to bring the best of the agency to the challenges we face,” Brennan said. “This kind of change will take time.”

Why is the CIA doing this now?
Simply put, because the world has changed and keeping up with technological developments is vital to the agency’s mission. Brennan has reportedly likened the changes to an effort to avoid the fate of Kodak, the film company that failed to keep pace as the world went digital. “A digital world challenges the way we work in a clandestine world,” CIA Deputy Director Andrew Hallman, who will lead the new directorate, told Defense One. “We have to come up with new ways to operate in a much more-connected environment and still be clandestine.”

This can’t be new. Hasn’t the CIA used cybertechnology before?
Of course. For example, it reportedly worked with the National Security Agency and Israeli intelligence to build the cyberweapon known as Stuxnet, which was used to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program several years ago. But this reorganization is meant to boost those digital programs and integrate them across the CIA’s operations.

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The spy agency’s need to update its IT has long been clear. Retired Gen. Michael Hayden, who served as CIA chief from 2006 to 2009, brought in outside consultants to study the problem. They concluded that "you're paying probably twice as much as you actually should be paying for it," Hayden told FCW.

The CIA requested $685.4 million for computer network operations in fiscal 2013, compared with $1 billion requested by the NSA, according to a classified budget whistleblower Edward Snowden gave The Washington Post.

Ok, so how important is this — and how effective will it be?
Brennan says the sweeping realignment is a major and necessary change that will improve operations, and thousands of CIA personnel will reportedly see changes as a result of the reorganization. Some feathers have already gotten ruffled. “The head of the CIA’s clandestine service recently decided to retire abruptly in part because of opposition to a plan that would strip his position of much of its authority over the agency’s covert operations overseas and the teams of spies that it deploys,” The Washington Post reported in March.

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Still, the overhaul may not really change all that much day-to-day, according to Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA officer. Pillar likened the creation of the new digital directorate to that of the Homeland Security Department, which put security agencies from across the government under one roof. Similarly, many of the capabilities that will be utilized in the new organization already exist in the CIA. “Is there logic in putting it all in one directorate?” asked Pillar. “Yes, I suppose so.”

Pillar also raised concerns about the new-fangled mission centers because they could end up clashing with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations and could lead to questions about the chain of command should something go wrong in the field.

In addition, putting analysts and operators in the same outfit might impinge the agency’s core mission of collecting intelligence, according to Pillar. If an outpost undertakes a covert action, and the analyst is in the same office, it “could lead to non-objective analysis” because “the people running the operation have a stake in making it a success,” he said.

He noted the U.S. Central Command is under scrutiny for possibly manipulating intelligence reports to create a more optimistic narrative about the ongoing fight against ISIS.