A California National Guard full time technician works from home, May. 20, 2020, in Huntington Beach, Calif. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Crystal Housman)

How the Intelligence Workforce Adapted and Learned from COVID-19

Intelligence leaders said that while the COVID-19 pandemic threw myriad challenges at their community, the necessary adjustments to the workforce also taught them lasting lessons that will help shape the IC environment of the future.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past six months, I’m in a constant state of ‘how do we mitigate risk,'” Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, told the Intelligence and National Security Summit in a panel discussion Wednesday.

The annual event, hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, is usually held at the D.C. convention center but took place virtually this year — even with virtual industry kiosks and a virtual happy hour — because of the pandemic.

Nakasone stressed that partnerships and resiliency have been critical since the pandemic drove the intelligence community to conduct its work in ways that keep employees safe. “I’ve become a little bit better at risk mitigation over the past six months,” he said.

Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Bob Ashley said the pandemic centered the agency’s focus on “how we take care of our most precious assets” — the workforce and “our families.” Ashley said that putting conditions in place to bring employees back into offices involves building and maintaining trust with the workforce.

The DIA director said he is “confident” that the agency’s National Center for Medical Intelligence “did what we are supposed to” in collecting and conveying intel in the early days of the pandemic. “They did their job and they got the word out,” Ashley said.

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director Vice Adm. Bob Sharp said COVID-19 emphasized the importance of communication and collaboration, putting the agency in a mode to not just survive the pandemic but to “use the opportunity to come out of this every way stronger.”

“It’s amazing to watch creativity and ingenuity in times of trouble,” Sharp said.

National Reconnaissance Office Director Chris Scolese said one of the pandemic positives is “we saw is how strong our people are.”

As the agency didn’t have a structure to support unclassified work, NRO “had to have a higher number of people here to support mission,” and to provide an environment to prevent the spread of COVID-19 “all had to work together to be safe.”

Under these circumstances, Scolese said, the agency still met 100 percent of what NRO was asked to deliver.

Seeing the trust among the workforce in action and adaptation to the coronavirus reality, Scolese said he’s confident that the agency can build upon that even further. “Going forward we’re going to have a more efficient organization because we have more tools in our toolshed,” he said.

At a Thursday panel with intelligence leaders in the armed services, the director of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance at U.S. Space Force — created in December — said the timing of the pandemic “really stifled our build.”

Maj. Gen. Leah Lauderback said that while teleworking can be further integrated into agencies in the future, standing up a service and command when COVID-19 hit meant that the new force was already working at 10 percent capacity of needed people and teleworking exacerbated that staffing issue.

U.S. Army Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Kate Leahy said the service has found there “are elements within our team that can very, very successfully work from home.”

Leahy said they plan to “continue to practice using it even when it’s not necessary to use in the event of a contingency.”

U.S. Marine Corps Director of Intelligence Brig. Gen. Melvin Carter said the new normal is not without concerns. “Ensuring we’re not sharing classified information as we use some of these telecommunications tools is something that’s always on my mind,” he said.

U.S. Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Cyber Effects Operations Lt. Gen. Mary O’Brien said the service is “still learning with the pandemic,” but the success of telework made a believer out of one skeptic in leadership who thought telework meant “I can’t tell if you’re working.”

Adjusting to a COVID-era work style was “not just about whether or not we were going to be able to get the work done — the mission was going to get done,” said Rear Adm. Andrew Sugimoto, U.S. Coast Guard Assistant Commandant for Intelligence. It was about answering broader questions such as “how do you reduce stress on families, how do you get to the point of getting access to classified material without bringing masses of people together.”

Sugimoto noted that life at home has now changed for staff, and that needs to be taken into account moving forward.

Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Warfare and Director of Naval Intelligence Vice Adm. Jeffrey Trussler said staff who already worked well together as a team were less fazed by the pandemic transition when crisis struck.

With more being done remotely, though, “the explosion of opportunities is going to create some cyber vulnerabilities for us.”

“If you’re an adversary, that’s target No. 1 now — you’re fishing around,” Trussler said. Keeping a distanced work environment secure is going to require leadership, training, and vigilance — while working “to tweak up everyone’s mindset” about cyber hygiene and their role in maintaining cybersecurity in the office and at home.

Nakasone predicted that influence operations — with, like COVID-19, a “low barrier to entry” — constitute one of the IC’s greatest challenges moving forward, ops that aim to influence not just the election process but the diplomatic process and seize other opportunities to create doubt and question authority. Influence ops are “one of the things we’ll be dealing with not every two or four years,” he said.

He called election security for this November the “No. 1 priority” at NSA, focused on generating insights on our adversaries, sharing intel with partners such as DHS and FBI, and imposing outcomes on any adversaries who try to interfere. “We will have a tremendous continuing success,” Nakasone vowed.

Sharp said NGA also is adapting to the global strategic environment shift from counterterrorism and counterinsurgency to great power competition, including new classes of weapons and new concepts of warfare being developed by some. Smart machines and artificial intelligence offer a “great opportunity for us” but with the availability of that data “it’s not only ours.”

Ashley said the challenge of great power competition and understanding where it’s headed is why it’s critical for DIA to utilize industry partnerships when possible. “Our ability to harness big data in a meaningful way allows us to have analysts work at a much rapider pace with larger pieces of information,” he said.

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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