Telework, staggered schedules and use of new technology are some of the ways intelligence officials are keeping themselves and the information they gather safe.
President Trump’s controversial pick to be director of national intelligence was sworn in on Tuesday, which comes as the intelligence community has modified workforce operations to accommodate the novel coronavirus pandemic.
In March, President Trump tapped Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, for the position for the second time. Last summer Ratcliffe quickly withdrew from consideration after questions were raised about his qualifications (the law requires extensive intelligence experience) and dubious claims on his resume. Nevertheless, on May 21 the Senate confirmed Ratcliffe, 49-44, along party lines. In addition to taking on a role where his predecessors have clashed with the president, he takes office during unprecedented times. The Office of Personnel Management directed federal agencies to “maximize telework” during the pandemic, but it’s more complicated for the 17 intelligence agencies due to the classified nature of their work.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence “continues to monitor the COVID-19 pandemic and adjust its response, in accordance with [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and OPM guidance,” an ODNI official told Government Executive. The office “has reduced staff contact through a variety of options including staggered shifts, flexible schedules and social distancing practices.”
The official said the office is balancing continuity of operations and the need to protect workforce health. Also, the intelligence community “has numerous missions requiring a global workforce presence,” so intelligence “agencies are also developing and implementing appropriate response plans consistent with federal guidelines and regulations.”
Similarly, a U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command spokesperson said the agency has reduced the number of staff members in offices through teleworking and social distancing. “Per [Defense Department] and Army policy, INSCOM is following CDC guidelines for protection measures and social distancing requirements whenever possible to combat the spread of COVID-19 for employees who can't telework due to the classified nature of their work,” said the spokesperson. “INSCOM implemented these actions to maintain the safety, security and health of its workforce while continuing to meet mission requirements.”
A CIA spokesperson said the agency is always ready to “preserve our mission capability, no matter the circumstances, while also protecting the well-being of our global workforce.” As a result of the coronavirus outbreak, “our officers are exercising tremendous creativity and flexibility, and we’re delivering on our mission.”
When asked about how the intelligence division of the Coast Guard is handling the pandemic, the Coast Guard gave Government Executive its official statement:
“The Coast Guard is committed to maintaining its operational readiness and will continue to perform critical missions that protect our national interests, promote economic prosperity and ensure public safety. The Coast Guard is committed to keeping its workforce safe and is maximizing social distancing through telework to the greatest extent possible. We employ a risk-based approach and provide personal protective equipment to members that will be in contact with the public. We have also set up a website to ensure the latest safety and policy guidance is available to our entire workforce and their families”
Jim Dawson, special agent in charge of the mission services division of the FBI’s Washington field office told Government Executive his office has also been using staggered work schedules and telework where possible, which is similar to what other FBI field offices are doing. He said about 85% of his workforce comes into the office once a week and “in those instances where people are not in the office, we really leaned upon technology as some do telework.” They’ve been using Microsoft Office products, Skype and other online training and webinar applications to communicate with private sector and law enforcement partners.
“We've probably increased our capacity in doing those things,” Dawson said. “It’s really been beneficial to us. I think all of the FBI faces a challenge during the coronavirus pandemic in maintaining close continuity with our state and local partners and also with their private sector partners. And having webinars and just maintaining close connection with them has proven viable and has been very useful in continuing our ability to operate as normally as possible.”
In addition to federal employees, contractors are also subject to these modified operations, as Defense One reported in April. Several former intelligence officials said that the changes the intelligence community has made to accommodate public health guidance could lead to long-term reforms.
“It’s possible that as we move to more open source information...we could shift some functions to a situation where we could work from home,” said Glenn Gerstell, National Security Agency general counsel from 2015 to 2020, during a webinar in April. “Clearly the government could do a little more in terms of assisting and teleworking across the government generally, [but] in particular [in the] intelligence community where not everything needs to be in a secure environment.”
He said in the coming months, “we’re going to be learning a lot from what restaurants and shopping malls and other retailers and the rest of our economy does in terms of social distancing” for how the intelligence community will handle sensitive compartmented information facilities.
Similarly, Charles Clancy, vice president for Intelligence Programs at MITRE, wrote in The Hill on April 3 that the pandemic is a “strategic moment” for the intelligence community.
“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,” Clancy wrote. The shift will not be easy as “new policies, technologies, and tradecraft must be developed to mitigate security concerns while accelerating open-source missions,” but “this crisis is a proving ground for flexible work solutions.”
Larry Pfeiffer, director of the Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy and International Security at George Mason University and former senior director of the White House Situation Room and chief-of-staff to CIA Director Michael Hayden, spoke with Government Executive about what he thinks could be done going forward.
“I think a serious examination of classification needs to happen [because] we operate in a world that is very heavily classified and, some would argue, over classified,” he said. If more information were unclassified, then intelligence officials would be less reliant on sensitive compartmented information facilities. Pfeiffer also said he thinks there should be a “serious examination of technology tools that could be used to allow greater use of telework...maybe not on a permanent basis,” but to use in times of need such as a global pandemic.
After he was sworn in on Tuesday, Ratcliffe said in a statement that his “highest priority” will be “to provide timely, accurate, and objective intelligence to inform the president and policymakers, and ultimately to keep all Americans safe.”
This reflected what he said during his confirmation hearing on May 5— the first hearing to be held with pandemic precautions. “I look at the threats that we’re facing around the world and what’s happening and what we’re living in right now with this pandemic,” he said. “We will only continue to be the world’s superpower if we have the best intelligence enterprise and it has to be one that’s apolitical [and] gives the unvarnished truth.”