National Security

New Spy Powers A Step In The Right Direction

“A strong covert program allows an organization like the CIA greater darkness to work in.”

Last week, with little media attention, CIA Director Mike Pompeo announced new policies aimed at empowering our nation’s covert operatives and reducing prohibitive bureaucratic red tape that has proved burdensome on their work. The list of new competencies and planned programs show an appreciation of the greatest threats facing our country today.

With covert operations and counterintelligence receiving the bulk of attention Pompeo is telling officers under his charge, the people they are sworn to protect, and our adversaries that the U.S. is taking a proactive approach to the threats we face.

As the national security chess game continues to become more challenging, with conflicts in places like Syria, and threats volleyed by the likes of North Korea, the CIA is set to utilize its most effective method of intelligence gathering. And in this tech heavy 21st century we live in, it will be the methods that have been a part of this line of work since the beginning that will see us through.

As Pompeo’s plans puts the onus back with the officers on the front line and diminish the obstacles put in place by Washington bureaucrats, our ‘human collectors’ stand to have an easier time doing their jobs.

The plan, which is to be presented to the President for final approval in the coming days, shows an appreciation for the need to have an equally weighted intelligence collection strategy. One that utilizes the tools available in a way that properly balances their strengths and vulnerabilities. That is, one that is as reliant on the use of human case officers and sources, aka assets, as it is on technical tools such as communication intercepts.

With the country’s most recent presidential election shining the spotlight brighter than ever before on the efforts by adversaries to utilize their own technical means to interfere with and manipulate our democratic process, intelligence officers will now receive greater ability to preempt these attempts.

A bigger focus on covert operations means greater opportunity to conduct our own penetration of mining programs initiated by the likes of Russia and China.

Renewed and increased prioritization on covert action also gives the U.S. a better chance at staying ahead of the curve when monitoring the plans for military and nuclear action by the likes of Iran and North Korea. You don’t have to look too far back in time to see that even an otherwise seemingly resource-restricted country like North Korea can catch the world by surprise.

A strong covert program allows an organization like the CIA greater darkness to work in. The kind of darkness that is a spy’s best friend. Covert designations come with more restrictions on who has access and knowledge of the people and processes being utilized. What a covert program allows for, as the Director put it, is the CIA to stick to its roots by having the ability “to go collect against the most difficult places and against the most difficult targets.”

To that same point, this plan also shows recognition and intention to both protect against leaks and be more aggressive in the prosecution and punishment of leakers.

The agency will also seek to beef up its counterintelligence operations as a means to prevent our own citizens, both within the government and media, from putting national security at risk via sensitive information leaks. This is an unfortunate reality made necessary by the increasing trend of many in American society upholding leakers as heroes.

Perhaps the greatest emphasis and takeaway from the announcement is the recognition for the U.S. to play the long game in its national security approach. This was underscored by Pompeo’s identification of China as the greatest long-term threat to our nation’s security.

Currently, the likes of Russia, North Korea, and ISIS receive the lions share of headlines as they have successfully rattled individual cages that form the the foundation for our country. But it is China that wields the greatest threat and opportunity to target us across the board as it has shown its grasp and ability to penetrate and threaten us economically, militarily, and clandestinely.

The implementation of these new measures, which signify a return to the “old” tried and true methods of intelligence work, can’t come soon enough.

Brandon Blackburn

Brandon Blackburn is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and former CIA Counterterrorism Officer. During his time in the CIA, Blackburn served multiple tours in the Middle East; including Iraq, Jordan, and in Afghanistan. Since departing the agency, Blackburn co-founded Tip Of The Spear Productions and Consulting, where he and his team work on media productions aimed at telling the stories of law enforcement and military and also consults with law enforcement and private businesses on national security related issues. Additionally, he is a Consulting Producer for “Live PD” on A&E and co-hosts and produces the Talking Terrorism Podcast, along with reformed terrorist Mubin Shaikh. Blackburn also holds a journalism degree from the University of Missouri and an MBA with a concentration in International Business.

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