One target is America’s increasingly politically polarized democracy. As Russian-backed hacking unfolded this summer, the Obama White House’s response fueled frustration among law-enforcement and intelligence officials, according to current and former officials. The administration, they said, seemed to have no clear policy for how to respond to a new form of information warfare with no rules, norms or, it seemed, limits.
White House officials said the administration is still considering various methods of responding, but the responses won’t necessarily be made public.
China presents another challenge. Chinese businessmen and students continue trying to scoop up American state and economic secrets. In one bright spot, Beijing appears to be abiding by a 2015 pact signed by Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping that the two governments would not conduct economic espionage against one another. Chinese cyberattacks appear to have slowed from the voracious rate of the past, which included hacking into the computers of the 2008 presidential campaigns of John McCain and Barack Obama but not releasing what was found.
“The question is whether or not it is due to greater care in terms of covering one’s tracks,” Brennan said of the apparent change. “Or whether or not they realize that their brand is being tarnished by this very rapacious appetite for vacuuming up things.”
In a 2015 case, federal prosecutors indicted a 20-year-old hacker from Kosovo. With the help of a criminal hacker, Ardit Ferizi stole the home addresses of 1,300 members of the U.S. military, providing the information to Islamic State and posting it online, and calling for attacks on the individuals. Ferizi was arrested in Malaysia, where he was studying computer science. In September, Ferizi pleaded guilty in a U.S. federal court and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
“This blend of the criminal actor, the nation-state actor, and the terrorist actor, that’s going to be the trend over the next five years,” said John Carlin, who recently stepped down as head of the Justice Department division that monitors foreign espionage in the United States.
But some active clandestine officers argue that the intelligence community has grown too reliant on technology, a trend they trace back four decades to the directorship of Stansfield Turner. Satellite photography, remote sensors, and communications intercepts have become more sophisticated, but so have encryption techniques and anti-satellite weapons.
More important, they argue, is that technology is no substitute for “penetrations” —planting or recruiting human spies in foreign halls of power. The CIA missed India’s 1998 nuclear tests and misjudged Saddam Hussein’s arsenal in 2003 because it lacked spies in the right places.
Some former officials question Brennan’s strategy, arguing his reforms are too digitally focused and will create a more cautious, micromanaged spy agency. At a time when the agency needs to refocus its efforts on human espionage, they say, the centering of power in the new mission centers weakens the ability of the Directorate of Operations to produce a new generation of elite American spies who can take risks in the field.