Esper to DOD: Expect to Telework for ‘Weeks For Sure, Maybe Months’

Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks to members of the media during a news conference to discuss the department's efforts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic at the Pentagon Briefing Room in Washington, on Monday, March 23, 2020

Army Staff Sgt. Nicole Mejia/Department of Defense via AP

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Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks to members of the media during a news conference to discuss the department's efforts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic at the Pentagon Briefing Room in Washington, on Monday, March 23, 2020

At a virtual town hall, the defense secretary asked troops and employees to be extra careful of phishing attempts and to disregard dis- and misinformation about COVID-19.

Pentagon officials who are able to telework can expect to do so for “as long as necessary” and until the U.S. is “beyond the coronavirus crisis,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday.

At a morning virtual town hall, Esper said mass teleworking will help the agency and government at-large protect all Americans from the growing pandemic—but it’s also already introducing new and emerging security vulnerabilities.

When asked how long people can continue working remotely while carrying on the Pentagon’s mission, Esper responded that “it’s going to be weeks, for sure, maybe months.” Defense is asking “every office head, every director, every person in the chain of command to exercise due diligence and great caution and telework as much as possible—so that we can protect our people while performing our mission,” he said.

The secretary’s announcement follows guidance launched by the Trump administration last week, which directed federal agencies and departments to offer “maximum telework flexibilities” for federal employees. The Office of Management and Budget later updated guidance to push agencies to also maximize teleworking options for millions of federal contractors. And on Monday, Defense announced the Pentagon facility would remain open and operational for the time being, but top officials would restrict access to certain entrances and institute enhanced health protection measures. 

Related: Esper Orders Pentagon into Stricter Health-Related Lockdown

Related: ‘We Want to Be the Last Resort,’ Says Defense Secretary

Related: The Prognosis: Latest News on Coronavirus & National Security

Still, for those whose responsibilities don’t warrant them to be inside the agency’s walls, teleworking could help preserve their health and stop the virus’ spread. 

“So I think people should prepare themselves and adjust their routines,” Esper said.

Department officials, he added, are also “doing what [they] can” to ensure that, on the network side, there’s actually enough bandwidth to support the heightened connectivity demands that increased teleworking might introduce. And growing remote access also puts the agency at risk for a range of new security threats. In that light, Esper put forth a bit of a direct plea.

“Now, I want to put an important caveat in here as well. [An] ask I have, if you’re teleworking—if you’re doing anything that involves the networks and IP—be very, very careful of IP vulnerabilities,” Esper said. “We are a little bit more exposed when we’re doing telework, using a lot more bandwidth, there’s more open ports, et cetera. So I ask people to be doubly cautious about getting emails that aren’t familiar to them, phishing attempts by bad persons, and all that. And exercise good computer hygiene when you’re on the system—because we want to make sure that we maintain the protection of our networks, of our systems.”

At another point in the virtual town hall, Esper highlighted that the department has already observed “many sources” of dis- and misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The rumors are likely rapidly disseminated by people who are “just concerned and scared and anxious,” Esper said—and they also “probably” originate from “countries who want to sow chaos with the United States, who are injecting this into the ecosystem, if you will.” 

“So look, let me reassure you there’s been no talk of martial law,” Esper said. “There’s been no talk whatsoever of mass quarantines for the United States or any of that other nonsense that’s out there.”

In a deliberate effort to help curb disinformation, Esper said, “in the next day or so,” the department will launch a new page on its website to support transparency and to act as a source that people can reach out to raise concerns around possible rumors or disinformation campaigns. Right now, they’re calling it “mythbusters.” 

The page itself will essentially “look at what’s out there in terms of the rumor mill,” dismiss false or incorrect information and leave the posts up for people to refer back to as they work to keep up with what’s actually real and happening.

“And if you have ideas, we’ll try to find a way for folks on that page to write in and say ‘hey I’ve heard this—is there any truth to it?’” Esper said. “So that we can knock those myths down.”

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