Forget about spies. It’s rogue insiders that cause heartburn at U.S. intelligence agencies these days.
Few spy cases have broken in the past decade and a half. In contrast, a proliferation of U.S. intelligence and military insiders have gone rogue and spilled secrets to journalists or WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group.
The leaks are as damaging as any major spy case, perhaps more so. And they have underscored the ease of stealing secrets in the modern age, sometimes with a single stroke of a keyboard.
Since early March, WikiLeaks has published part of a trove of documents purportedly created by cyber units of the Central Intelligence Agency. WikiLeaks continues to upload the documents and hacking tools, dubbed Vault 7, to the internet for all to see.
For its part, a mysterious group that calls itself the Shadow Brokers has re-emerged and dumped a large catalog of stolen National Security Agency hacking tools on the internet, including evidence the agency had penetrated Middle Eastern banking networks.
“In the past, we’ve lost secrets to foreign adversaries,” retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, a former director of both the CIA and the NSA, said in an interview. “Now we’ve got the self-motivated insider that is our most important counterintelligence challenge.”
Hayden cited the cases of Army Pfc. Chelsea Manning, convicted in 2013 for releasing three-quarters of a million classified or sensitive military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks. He also mentioned Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who shook public opinion with his disclosures to journalists in 2013 about U.S. surveillance practices. Hayden added the Vault 7 disclosures last month, which others presume were stolen by a contract employee at the CIA.
Lastly, there is the case of Harold T. Martin, an NSA contractor accused by the Justice Department in February of hoarding 50 terabytes of highly sensitive data from the agency at his Maryland home, in a shed and in his car. Martin’s motives are not publicly known.
Traditional motives for spying – summed up by the acronym MICE, which stands for money, ideology, compromise and ego – were not apparently at play in any of those cases.
“No foreign service used any of those characteristics against any of the people we mentioned. It’s kind of sui generis. How do you stop that?” Hayden asked.
The cases have brought attention to how widely U.S. intelligence agencies, which have a total annual budget of $53 billion, employ outside contractors.
“The reason that they exist is that we have jobs that need to get done, and done rapidly,” said Dave Aitel, a former chief scientist at the NSA who now is chief executive of Immunity Inc., a Miami cybersecurity firm. When global events affect security priorities, he added, large new intelligence programs can stand up rapidly with contractors.
“The government can put together a billion-dollar company in three weeks,” Aitel said. “It’s an amazing system.”
Contractors pass the same hurdles for security clearances as government personnel.
“The government is doing the vetting,” said Bryson Bort, a graduate of the Military Academy at West Point who is chief executive of Grimm, a Washington-area cybersecurity firm.
The number of contractors in the intelligence community is not publicly known. A Congressional Research Service report Aug. 18, 2015, cited figures from 2007 that indicated 27 percent of the 100,000 members of the intelligence community workforce were contractors.
At intelligence facilities, regular employees wear blue badges while contractors wear green badges. Many perform similar tasks, although contractors earn higher salaries that offset their diminished job security.
“I’m not a contractor champion per se. . . . But I’m reluctant to say the contractors are the sources of everything wrong,” said Rhea Siers, a scholar in residence at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University who left a senior post at the NSA in 2013 after a three-decade career there.
“There is a feeling among some of the people that contractors aren’t treated as part of the enterprise,” Siers said.
During and immediately after the Cold War, spy catchers in the FBI were kept busy looking for moles in the intelligence community. Big names included Robert Hanssen, himself a counterintelligence agent, who spent 22 years spying for Russia before his arrest in 2001. CIA analyst Aldrich Ames was arrested in 1994, a rare agency turncoat.
Siers cautioned that the difference between spies of old and leakers of the modern era may not be that great. Even some of the most infamous spies “never believed they were helping the adversary,” she said.
Modern insiders who spill secrets often express patriotic sentiments about doing so, saying they are exposing government overreach.
“They’ve rationalized to themselves to think they are helping this country. . . . Some of it is naiveté on their part,” she said.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in his first public address last week after taking over the agency in January that today’s intelligence community leakers were “soulmates” of traitors from the past: “In today’s digital environment, they can disseminate stolen U.S. secrets instantly around the globe to terrorists, dictators, hackers and anyone else seeking to do us harm.”
Pompeo called WikiLeaks a “non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia” and said counterintelligence units would take action against the group.
Julian Assange, the Australian founder of WikiLeaks, who had already lashed out at the CIA for “devastating incompetence” for failing to protect its hacking tools, said Pompeo’s speech “only serves to underscore why WikiLeaks’ publications are necessary. WikiLeaks will continue to publish true, newsworthy information that contributes to the public debate.”
Experts say loyal employees don’t turn into malicious insiders overnight. Work tension can meld with personal frustrations, narcissism and anger at authority on the pathway to treason. Throw in medical issues, marital discord and financial losses, and the process can accelerate.
The challenge for intelligence agency managers is to detect signs of stress, supporting troubled employees, even removing their access to some kinds of sensitive data, without putting an onerous burden on other employees.
“The last thing I want to see is a witch hunt,” Siers said. But she acknowledged that some unusual behavior may not get noticed because employees “are just part of the group.”
A report this month, titled “Assessing the Mind of the Malicious Insider,” prepared by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a nonprofit group representing retired intelligence agents, noted that software algorithms reach 90 percent accuracy in detecting changes in personality, life events and emotions of employees through their computer interactions.
“Postmortems of past insider malice show a trail of lesser inappropriate or uncharacteristic acts that were not dealt with by the organization or by line managers,” the study noted.
Insider threats are a menace not only to the intelligence community but also to private industry, and a handful of private cybersecurity firms sell platforms that use algorithms to sift through vast amounts of data about employees to detect anomalous behavior.
Bryan Ware, the chief executive of Haystax Technology, a McLean, Va., company that has contracts with U.S. national security agencies, said his firm’s Constellation for Insider Threat platform can sort through 700 categories of continuously monitored data about employees.
“It’s not the goal of our system to say, ‘This is your guy,’ ” Ware said. Rather it is to allow organizations to rank employees into risk tiers, depending on changes in their behavior.
“We’ve been able to identify risks, often years in advance,” Ware said.