COVID-19 is forcing the intelligence community to think outside the SCIF

COVID-19 is forcing the intelligence community to think outside the SCIF
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The COVID-19 outbreak is forcing all federal agencies to contemplate teleworking at scale. This creates unique challenges for the secretive intelligence community (IC), whose culture is anchored in security clearances, windowless buildings, classified computer networks, and in-person meetings with trusted colleagues. This cultural identity is not conducive to accomplishing missions during a prolonged pandemic, and its workforce must be effective outside Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIFs).

This comes while intelligence tradecraft is radically shifting. New technology is altering notions of connectivity and privacy. Open-source data is king. Commercial intelligence companies are blossoming. From satellite imagery to cell phone tracking data, intelligence is mainstream and being monetized by everyone from Wall Street to Silicon Valley.

This is a strategic moment. The requirement to telework induced by COVID-19 can help the IC overcome an entrenched identity that has held back a much-needed, community-wide cultural shift. In the long-term, a more competitive IC will embrace new workforce, tradecraft, and classification norms — and be stronger for it.

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In its white paper, “Stopping COVID-19: Short-Term Actions for Long-Term Impact,” MITRE recommends reducing the human-to-human contact rate of Americans by 90 percent to disrupt the virus’s trajectory. Millions of Americans are heeding these warnings and taking decisive actions to keep themselves and their communities safer through effective social distancing. However, when it comes to intelligence professionals who conduct their work in secure — often cramped — facilities, the needs of the mission conflict with current public health best practices. How does the IC, built on the bedrock of a cleared workforce working together in secure facilities, continue to carry out its vital mission while drastically reducing human contact?

Last year, the Director of National Intelligence launched the “Right, Trusted, Agile Workforce” initiative focused on novel approaches to developing a workforce well aligned to emerging and future needs. The COVID-19 pandemic represents a catalyzing opportunity to make much bolder strides than have been seen to date.

The Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a nonpartisan, nonprofit trade association to advance intelligence and national security priorities, has called for increased telework opportunities as part of a broader set of government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Section 3610 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act includes some of these recommendations and provides financial relief to contractors who are unable to telework due to classification constraints. While this is an important stop-gap measure, it must be paired with cultural transformation in the IC.

As the IC shifts more and more to commercially and publicly available information and services, the need for conducting its mission exclusively in on-site secure facilities diminishes, opening the doors for unclassified intelligence analysis, a more diverse and distributed workforce, and telework.

Such a transformation is not easy. There are real counterintelligence and operational security challenges that must be overcome, especially when operating in an unclassified setting. Even if the data itself is unclassified, how the IC uses it can be extremely sensitive. New policies, technologies, and tradecraft must be developed to mitigate security concerns while accelerating open-source missions.

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This crisis is a proving ground for flexible work solutions. Millions of American workers already successfully take advantage of these arrangements, ensuring continuity of operations in the midst of a public health crisis.

The need for operational resiliency mandates that the IC implement these vital tools wherever possible, without delay, to ensure the continuity of its mission, the health of its workforce, and its ability to attract and retain the workforce it needs for the future.

Charles Clancy is the vice president for Intelligence Programs at MITRE and is a member of the INSA Advisory Committee and AFCEA Intelligence Committee. This opinion reflects the author’s point of view, not a corporate position.