At the CIA, a fix to communications system that left trail of dead agents remains elusive

At the CIA, a fix to communications system that left trail of dead agents remains elusive

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP (3), Getty images.

Between around 2009 and 2013, the CIA’s online method of communicating with its human sources on the ground all over the world was tragically compromised — leading to the exfiltration, imprisonment or death of dozens of people spying for the agency, according to a November investigation by Yahoo News.‘ data-reactid=”23″>Between around 2009 and 2013, the CIA’s online method of communicating with its human sources on the ground all over the world was tragically compromised — leading to the exfiltration, imprisonment or death of dozens of people spying for the agency, according to a November investigation by Yahoo News.

But the fallout from that disaster, including internal battles at the CIA and struggles to replace and fix a complex web of interlocking technical systems, continues to rage on to this day, according to five former intelligence community sources familiar with the matter. ‘ data-reactid=”25″>But the fallout from that disaster, including internal battles at the CIA and struggles to replace and fix a complex web of interlocking technical systems, continues to rage on to this day, according to five former intelligence community sources familiar with the matter.

Because of the scope of the problem, fixing it was also a staggering task. It’s not just “a single flawed system that needed to be fixed,” according to one former CIA official. “It was a universe of systems.”‘ data-reactid=”27″>Because of the scope of the problem, fixing it was also a staggering task. It’s not just “a single flawed system that needed to be fixed,” according to one former CIA official. “It was a universe of systems.”

A second former official was more charitable, arguing that while the problem is not entirely solved, “there’s been major improvement” in the communications system. But, the source added, “it doesn’t serve everyone equally.”‘ data-reactid=”29″>A second former official was more charitable, arguing that while the problem is not entirely solved, “there’s been major improvement” in the communications system. But, the source added, “it doesn’t serve everyone equally.”

The fiascos in Iran and China continue to be sticking points between the Directorate of Operations and the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology (DS&T) — the technical scientists. “There is a disconnect between the two directorates,” said one former CIA official. “I’m not sure that will be fixed anytime soon.”‘ data-reactid=”38″>The fiascos in Iran and China continue to be sticking points between the Directorate of Operations and the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology (DS&T) — the technical scientists. “There is a disconnect between the two directorates,” said one former CIA official. “I’m not sure that will be fixed anytime soon.”

The agency does some in-house research and development within DS&T, which houses many of the CIA’s tech experts, who often work directly with external defense contractors developing technology to fit agency needs. ‘ data-reactid=”40″>The agency does some in-house research and development within DS&T, which houses many of the CIA’s tech experts, who often work directly with external defense contractors developing technology to fit agency needs.

A deeper issue was the lack of congruence between the covert communications platforms and the actual stated needs of CIA officers in the field, said former officials. DS&T employees, who seemed intent on “empire building,” had a “take it or leave it’ attitude,” said one former senior official.‘ data-reactid=”42″>A deeper issue was the lack of congruence between the covert communications platforms and the actual stated needs of CIA officers in the field, said former officials. DS&T employees, who seemed intent on “empire building,” had a “take it or leave it’ attitude,” said one former senior official.

Entire careers in the CIA’s Office of Technical Service — the part of DS&T directly responsible for developing covert communications systems — were built on these internet-based systems, said a former senior official. Raising concerns about them was “like calling someone’s baby ugly,” said this person.‘ data-reactid=”54″>Entire careers in the CIA’s Office of Technical Service — the part of DS&T directly responsible for developing covert communications systems — were built on these internet-based systems, said a former senior official. Raising concerns about them was “like calling someone’s baby ugly,” said this person.

In the case of the initial covert communications failure in Iran, contractors were deeply involved in the mission, including locating and targeting specific sources on the ground that the CIA might recruit. John Reidy, a contractor with Virginia defense company SAIC, was one such employee. In 2008, he blew the whistle on concerns that a massive technical failure might occur.‘ data-reactid=”56″>In the case of the initial covert communications failure in Iran, contractors were deeply involved in the mission, including locating and targeting specific sources on the ground that the CIA might recruit. John Reidy, a contractor with Virginia defense company SAIC, was one such employee. In 2008, he blew the whistle on concerns that a massive technical failure might occur.

The reliance on major defense contractors within the Pentagon and the intelligence community is a controversial one. The Congressional Research Service examined the issue in 2015 following former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leak of a large cache of internal classified documents on global surveillance. Among other concerns, CRS cited the risk that the government may not have “sufficient capacity to monitor contractor employees who perform critical functions” and may “run the risk of ceding control over their mission and operations to contractors.”‘ data-reactid=”58″>The reliance on major defense contractors within the Pentagon and the intelligence community is a controversial one. The Congressional Research Service examined the issue in 2015 following former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leak of a large cache of internal classified documents on global surveillance. Among other concerns, CRS cited the risk that the government may not have “sufficient capacity to monitor contractor employees who perform critical functions” and may “run the risk of ceding control over their mission and operations to contractors.”

But when problems occur with classified contracts, the issues tend to stay under the radar. ‘ data-reactid=”60″>But when problems occur with classified contracts, the issues tend to stay under the radar.

The problem is also potentially larger than just the CIA, said one former senior intelligence official. In the past, the Defense Clandestine Service, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s covert human-intelligence gathering arm, has employed CIA-developed internet-based covert communications platforms, as has the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service during joint operations conducted with the agency, said this person.‘ data-reactid=”62″>The problem is also potentially larger than just the CIA, said one former senior intelligence official. In the past, the Defense Clandestine Service, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s covert human-intelligence gathering arm, has employed CIA-developed internet-based covert communications platforms, as has the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service during joint operations conducted with the agency, said this person.

“Within the intelligence community, CIA is the keeper of the human intelligence mission. Technical forms of collection are vital, but a good human source is unique and can deliver decisive intelligence on our adversaries’ secrets — even their intent,” she said during a speech at the University of Louisville in Kentucky in September.‘ data-reactid=”71″>“Within the intelligence community, CIA is the keeper of the human intelligence mission. Technical forms of collection are vital, but a good human source is unique and can deliver decisive intelligence on our adversaries’ secrets — even their intent,” she said during a speech at the University of Louisville in Kentucky in September.

These systems were not internet-based, said this person, and functioned more like “electronic dead-drops.”‘ data-reactid=”73″>These systems were not internet-based, said this person, and functioned more like “electronic dead-drops.”

Additionally, it’s possible congressional investigators could again take up the mantle to oversee the ongoing procurement process and the effectiveness of the technology in use overseas to communicate with sources.‘ data-reactid=”75″>Additionally, it’s possible congressional investigators could again take up the mantle to oversee the ongoing procurement process and the effectiveness of the technology in use overseas to communicate with sources.

“Heads should roll because of this,” said this person. “Agents were killed. But to protect people’s careers and egos, we buried counterintelligence problems.”‘ data-reactid=”77″>“Heads should roll because of this,” said this person. “Agents were killed. But to protect people’s careers and egos, we buried counterintelligence problems.”

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