By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security
Earlier this month, the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) released The National Counterintelligence Strategy of the United States of America 2020-2022. The document focuses on U.S. counterintelligence activities or threats that have evolved or arisen since the last strategy document was released in 2016.
Over the past four years, the intelligence threat picture has changed to include aggressive disinformation campaigns by U.S. adversaries and a plethora of leakers who disregard their oaths and release sensitive information to satisfy a personal ideological viewpoint.
Strategy Aims to Fill Newly Recognized Gaps and Calls for New Government Approach
Hostile foreign intelligence services are attacking the U.S. economy and seeking to undermine the U.S. political environment. In some instances, hostile foreign intelligence services are attacking the U.S. economy and seeking to undermine the U.S. political environment.
In a news release, NCSC Director William Evanina said, “with the private sector and democratic institutions increasingly under attack, this is no longer a problem the U.S. Government can address alone. It requires a whole-of-society response involving the private sector, an informed American public, as well as our allies.”
Five Strategic Objectives in 2020-2022 Strategy
The new NCSC strategy will continue traditional counterintelligence efforts, having identified five new strategic objectives because of the threat to these areas. They are:
- Protect the nation’s critical infrastructure from foreign intelligence entities seeking to exploit or disrupt national critical functions.
- Reduce threats to key U.S. supply chains to prevent foreign attempts to compromise the integrity, trustworthiness, and authenticity of products and services purchased and integrated into the operations of the U.S. Government, the defense industrial base, and the private sector.
- Counter the exploitation of the U.S. economy to protect our competitive advantage in world markets and our economic prosperity and security.
- Defend American democracy against foreign influence threats to protect America’s democratic institutions and processes and preserve our culture of openness.
- Counter foreign intelligence cyber and technical operations that are harmful to U.S. interests.
These endeavors have been long been known, but the U.S. has not published a comprehensive strategy to deal with the threats in these areas. For instance, some published U.S. strategy products include protecting the supply chain or even bolstering cybersecurity, but the response has been haphazard at best. By rolling these issues into a single strategic directive, the NCSC can better marshal resources to fulfill its mandate.
Elements of This National Strategy Require Reaching out to Other Government Agencies
Formulating a national strategy is relatively easy, but implementing it is another matter entirely. To wit, some elements of this national strategy require that the NCSC reach out to government agencies unaccustomed to counterintelligence methods of operation.
Additionally, reaching out to the public presents another challenge. Without coordination, some private companies or institutions may face similar outreach requests and redundant questioning. What’s worse is that government outreach to fill these security gaps could receive a hostile reception. China, for example, preys heavily on American academia, but institutions of higher learning are not at all eager to shut off the financial resources flowing in from Beijing. Increasing security requirements for performing under Defense Department grants is just one example of incentivizing colleges and universities to cooperate with federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
The intelligence collection by violent, non-state actors is also cited in this iteration of counterintelligence strategy. Groups such as Lebanese Hezbollah and al-Qaeda are specifically named, but there are also criminal enterprises and ideological lone wolves that pose a threat to sensitive information. This, of course, is nothing new, but the threat has risen to the level that this latest national strategy includes these actors.
Some people entrusted with national security positions have abused the trust granted to them and released information publically without consideration for the harm that causes. The Obama administration enacted a national insider threat program to tackle the problem. Unfortunately, that program appeared to separate the insider threat strategy from traditional counterintelligence. (This author welcomed the insider threat strategy in 2016, but was critical of this perceived separation because adding additional reporting agencies can complicate investigations).
This new national strategy calls out those insiders and, hopefully, rolls the important insider threat initiative into traditional counterintelligence.
This Strategy Appears to Be a Move in the Right Direction
Overall, this strategy appears to be a move in the right direction. Implementation will undoubtedly be tough. But with enough support from the Trump administration, Congress, and the various agencies involved, meeting these challenges should be attainable.
Involving the public at large in this strategy will require agreement from those government entities. But the public needs to be educated about the threat and told how that threat can affect individuals and institutions alike.
Counterintelligence is a difficult endeavor in the best of times and the U.S. still has a long way to go to perfecting a comprehensive strategy.