Central Intelligence Director (CIA) Director John Brennan gestures during a news conference at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Va., Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014

Central Intelligence Director (CIA) Director John Brennan gestures during a news conference at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Va., Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014 AP / PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS

CIA Restructuring Adds New Cyber Focus

CIA Director John Brennan announced a ‘huge’ change in the way the agency does business, adding special emphasis on the digital world.

The CIA will create a new directorate designed to boost the agency’s ability to collect and use digital intelligence in operations, agency CIA Director John Brennan announced. The move to launch a “directorate of digital innovation” comes a two weeks after the Washington Post first reported that Brennan would be restructuring the agency to place a much stronger emphasis on the use of computers and electronic intelligence.

The move is a big change for the agency, one that reflects a fundamental evolution in intelligence gathering. CIA traditionally has been tasked with collecting information from human sources (also called HUMINT). The NSA, conversely, is tasked with collecting information from electric sources in the form of signals (also called SIGINT). Today’s announcement is a formal recognition that the electronic world is overtaking the human one, and that collecting information from humans now has a digital component to it.

“Digital technology holds great promise for mission excellence, while posing serious threats to the security of our operations and information,” Brennan said, in message to the Intelligence Community, released Friday. “We must place our activities and operations in the digital domain at the very center of all our mission endeavors.” Brennan said a new senior position will “oversee the acceleration of digital and cyber integration across all of our mission areas.”

“The new Directorate will be responsible for overseeing the career development of our digital experts as well as the standards of our digital tradecraft.”

“Ideally, the way they prefer to work is one case officer, one source, talking face to face. That’s secure,” Patrick Skinner, former CIA case officer and director of special projects for the Soufan Group, told Defense One. “Increasingly, the world is digital, so yes, the collection of intelligence from a human standpoint, not just an NSA standpoint, increasingly has a digital component. It used to be all the tech stuff was in the Directorate of Science and Technology. If you needed something they would build you a tool to go get it.”

Skinner called the announcement “an awareness of the fact that digital competency has to be part of tradecraft at every level.”

The new Directorate will be modeled loosely off of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, or CTC, which was established in 1988 as a way to tackle terrorism across geographic regions and disciplines within the CIA, according to media reports.  

“CTC touched everything else in the last decade. It would be like that,” said Skinner. “They have a whole workforce that they have to make sure is protected digitally, can use digital in daily tradecraft,” he said. “The technology was never the problem; it was implementation. The implementation was ad hoc and they want to be more systematic.”

Brennan’s announcement also calls for the establishment of so-called Mission Centers that will bring the full range of operational, analytic, support, technical, and digital personnel and capabilities to bear on the nation’s most pressing security issues and interests.”

Skinner read that as indicative of a major workforce change. “The directorate of operations is divided into divisions. What they’ve done today is announce that they want to get rid of those and instead create centers… They want to bring analysts and operations officers closer together, like CTC.” 

He said that represented a “huge” change. “Each one of these divisions was a kingdom. Now the kingdoms are being re-ordered,” he said. “There’s a real upside, allowing you to track these issues that have no respect for boundaries. But you may lose some depth of real expertise, old school expertise, where the person is a walking encyclopedia.”