Four years after the National Counterintelligence Strategy was last released, the National Counterintelligence and Security Center unveiled its new framework for fighting emerging threats and adversaries of all kinds.
The newly announced strategy reflects “a more realistic appreciation of today’s counterintelligence threat landscape,” said Douglas London, a retired senior CIA operations officer and adjunct associate professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.
“It acknowledges the broader and hybrid array of state and nonstate actors targeting America’s official and private sector institutions alike,” he continued. “Perhaps more importantly, it lends itself to a more open and flexible mindset regarding how technology, especially that commercially available, has leveled the playing field for even those adversaries who lack America’s comparable resource advantages.”
The first trend in the strategy is the growing number of threat actors targeting the U.S. Current state actors include Russia, China, Iran, Cuba and North Korea. Nonstate actors include Lebanese Hezbollah, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and al-Qaida. There are also hacktivists, leaktivists and actors with no ties to foreign intelligence services.
Second, these actors are becoming more sophisticated with smarter intelligence capabilities and technologies like cyber tools, biometric devices, high-resolution imagery, technical surveillance equipment, advanced encryption and big data analytics.
And third, these threat actors have a wide set of targets. While foreign intelligence entities typically target U.S. federal agencies, these threat actors are also homing in on private sector and academic entities and are looking to influence public opinion.
“[The strategy] is like a clarion call for a partnership between the U.S. government and the private sector because our enemies don’t distinguish between the government and the private sector when they attack us,” said Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA chief of station. “They’re attacking our defense industry . . . it’s not just that they’re attacking [the Office of Personnel Management], for example, or other agencies.”
And that’s one of the most important takeaways from the strategy, Hoffman said, and one private sector companies highly attuned to counterintelligence should pay specific attention to.
“They can be leaders in building this public private partnership on which our national security and indeed our, in many ways — like this sector of the economy, on the growth of this sector — on which is depends,” he added.
And according to London, the strategy’s appreciation of adversarial intent is notable.
“Historically seen as a means to defend secrets from the U.S. or pilfer technology more cost efficiently than developing their own, the [counterintelligence]threat has morphed into an offensive weapon,” London explained. “Exerting influence, undermining American institutions and physically attacking critical infrastructure has weaponized CI.”
Plus, standards for international behavior have yet to keep pace with the destructive capacity of cyber-like attacks, which are just as damaging as missiles, London said. These attacks can destroy power grids, neutralize military defenses, or bring the economy to its knees.
To anticipate and deter these threats, the government will continue to address fundamental counterintelligence practices, including countering foreign intelligence activities in the U.S., mitigating insider threats, protecting national sensitive and classified information, protecting sensitive facilities from technical breaches, and countering assassination attempts by foreign intelligence services.
And as laid out by the strategy, going forward, the government will also have to reach beyond traditional practices to focus on five strategic objectives:
- Protect the nation’s critical infrastructure from foreign intelligence entities looking to exploit or disrupt national critical functions.
- Reduce threats to key U.S. supply chains to prevent foreign attempts to compromise the integrity, trustworthiness and authenticity of products and services purchased and integrated into the operations of the U.S. government, the defense industrial base and the private sector.
- Counter the exploitation of the U.S. economy to protect the nation’s competitive advantage in world markets and its economic prosperity and security.
- Defend American democracy against foreign influence threats to protect America’s democratic institutions and processes, and preserve the nation’s culture of openness.
- Counter foreign intelligence cyber and technical operations that are harmful to U.S. interests.
To address all these challenges, the strategy suggests a whole-of-society approach — the government can’t do it alone. It calls on the private sector, an informed public and foreign allies to work together toward sound counterintelligence and security procedures, while federal agencies align their plans and resources with the five objectives above.
And that’s where the nation needs to be, according to London.
“Beyond the strategy’s scope, however, is teeth,” he continued. “While constructively calling for holistic public and private partnership in addition to awareness and resolve, the issue remains authorities and responsibilities.”
London added the FBI is nominally the government’s counterintelligence threat manager, but the challenges are beyond its means, and the threats exceed the bureau’s traditional counterintelligence tools. And NCSC is within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which can analyze, advise and facilitate across the community, but lacks the operational authority, tools or charter. Overcoming these challenges requires an open-mind approach to applying the strategy’s warnings and advice, London said.
But starting with the strategy is key.
“It might be counterintuitive to some people that our intelligence community will come out with reports,” Hoffman said. “It’s the essence in what we do, it’s indications and warnings, and it’s, ‘Here’s what we do about it.’ It’s a great document that people should at least be familiar with.”
The strategy was signed by President Donald Trump on Jan. 7, and unveiled to the public Feb. 10.