Best Of: The CIA’s Officer of the Future

| Suzanne Kelly
Suzanne Kelly
CEO & PUBLISHER OF THE CIPHER BRIEF

Editor’s Note: As we spend Memorial Day reflecting on the storied history of those charged with protecting the United States, The Cipher Brief revisits CEO and Publisher Suzanne Kelly’s exclusive conversation with CIA Deputy Director Andrew Hallman, who oversees the Agency’s innovation efforts – the key to securing the future.

Few were paying attention, but the CIA did something groundbreaking in 2015. For the first time since before man walked on the moon, the Agency created a new directorate. The idea was to move officers into the age of cyber, to arm them with the kinds of digital skills they would need to maintain their edge. It’s probably a little Hollywood, but think about adding hacking skills to the adept handling of a Glock or a VP9. Add in a mandate of operating under a different legal authority than anyone else, and you start to get an idea of what the CIA’s Officer of the Future looks like.

It was a future that began to take shape among several key Agency leaders a few years ago. They saw how the enemy was using new technology in the traditional intelligence space. Thus began a robust effort to develop officers capable of engaging in covert cyber warfare.

To understand their blueprint, you need to understand the threat they faced. The non-classified versions of those threats include everything from the hacking of the Office of Personnel Management announced publicly in June of 2015 that exposed the documents collected for granting security clearances in the U.S., to the recent disclosure of documents touting the CIA’s hacking abilities via the WikiLeaks website.  

The Agency won’t comment on the WikiLeaks news, but CIA Director Mike Pompeo isn’t hiding his frustration, dubbing the website a ‘hostile intelligence service’ at a CSIS appearance last week. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly describes the enemy these days as coming from all sides, not just from nation states, and he says sources of attack also include “thieves, vandals, saboteurs, enemies of democracy and potentially much, much more.”

It makes sense then, that how the U.S. Government thinks about secrets and tradecraft in the age of the Internet is changing almost as rapidly as technology itself. So how is the CIA staying ahead of it? How is it building the officer of the future?  One answer is via the creation of the Directorate for Digital Innovation.

The DDI was stood up in October of 2015 (a few months after the OPM breach) with the idea of accelerating the sharing of information on cyber threats across the Agency’s various mission centers and developing new digital techniques (aka hacking skills) for accomplishing the range of missions the CIA tackles. 

The mission is currently led by CIA Deputy Director Andrew Hallman, who has been making public appearances to talk about the importance of innovation, to include a recent keynote at a ‘Hacking for Defense’ Seminar at Georgetown University.  (Full disclosure: The Cipher Brief is a media partner to the Hacking for Defense).   

Not surprisingly, Hallman didn’t want to wade into the murky waters of commenting on WikiLeaks, but he was willing to talk about steps the Agency is taking to develop and strengthen its cyber capabilities. Rewiring the brain and how the CIA thinks about intelligence was mission number one.

“The year we are in now, is really about transforming how we do intelligence, the business of intelligence,” Hallman told me in a sit-down interview. “The key factor is really about how we change our practices to more closely embrace the commercial analogues that are occurring within commercial industry and private industry, bring those into our workspace and our missions, and leveraging those for extending and reaching capacity as an Agency for the conduct of intelligence.”

Part of that means building a new “James Bond” type officer, if you will, by educating current Agency employees on new technologies and overcoming resistance if those new technologies run contrary to how things have been done in the past. Hallman cites that as his biggest challenge.

“Once you help them understand the technology behind it, how you can get to a greater level of security, whether it’s cloud technologies or other things like encryption, how that is actually adding to the defense of their data, defense of their networks, that’s the biggest challenge.”

An important step in tackling that challenge is to broaden the spectrum on how decisions are made, according to Hallman.

“Nesting in very comfortable arrangements is actually riskier in many cases because they’re missing the much greater mission game that the introduction, assimilation of advanced digital technology can give them whether it’s extending their outreach operationally or analytically.”

In addition to arming employees with both a new mindset and new skills when it comes to understanding and exploiting digital threats, the Directorate of Digital Innovation also aims to turn the data it gets into an actionable picture of the future, a crystal ball, if you will. Not as crazy as it sounds. I talked last year with Jason Matheny, the Director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), who gave a great insight into how they do that.

For Hallman, the ability to sift a picture out of a mountain of data, and do it quicker than anyone else, is the key to winning. That ‘Anticipatory Intelligence’ is one of the tools the CIA relies on to help stay ahead of threats. Not an easy challenge when the enemy can oftentimes develop skill sets a lot faster, without issues of privacy or protections to get in the way. You’ve heard it said before, the barrier to entry for a bad guy is getting lower, and they’re helping each other out in innovative ways.

“The dangers, the most insidious aspects of the cyber problem are the growing diversity of actors in the space. Whether it’s nation states, proxies, individual actors, terrorists, and those who are aided by very powerful commercial forces,” says Hallman. “The commercialization of cyber, is the most insidious form of this development, so it is incumbent upon us to yield the best of private industry and the goodness of the commercialization of the cyber security community to then counter our adversaries in that space.”

One of the most likely places where the CIA’s Officers of the Future will be operating are in the darkest corners of the Internet. Those dark net marketplaces where potential adversaries can easily buy the tools (complete with instructions) needed to launch attacks of their own. Battling that new, emerging enemy, according to Hallman, means fostering an intelligence approach that embraces innovation, regardless of where it comes from (private sector), while continuing to educate its officers and the public about how the team comes together.   

“Helping them understand our role, and our embrace of commercial industry, our embrace of the defense of our American values,” said Hallman, “that whole of nation approach, is our only answer to these adverse and widespread, diverse threats that we face around the globe.”

In reality, that doesn’t mean creating a single officer that looks and acts like James Bond, but rather creating a team that functions the way he does. That’s what the future looks like.

The Author is Suzanne Kelly

Suzanne Kelly is CEO & Publisher of The Cipher Brief and most recently served as CNN's Intelligence Correspondent before spending two years in the private sector. She also worked as an Executive Producer for CNN and as a news anchor at CNN International based in Berlin and Atlanta. In Berlin, she anchored a morning news program that was broadcast live in Europe, the Middle East and Africa and from Atlanta, she anchored a number of world news programs. She covered the NATO campaign in... Read More

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