DoD intel chief Vickers gives cyber premier priority status

Michael Vickers, the undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, said cybersecurity and terrorism are his top two short- and long-term concerns. He said protect...

Cybersecurity for the intelligence community has become what terrorism was in the early 2000s — an all-encompassing priority.

So much so that Michael Vickers, the undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, is making cybersecurity transformation the hallmark of his tenure.

Vickers said cybersecurity and terrorism are his top two priorities both in the short- and long-term.

The fact that he mentioned both issues in the same breath shows the impact and realization of the challenges both the public and private sectors face.

Vickers said cyber is a near and present danger.

“They are increasing in frequency, scale, sophistication and severity of impact. The range of threat actors, the methods of attack, the targeted systems and the victims who suffer from these attacks have also been expanding,” Vickers said Wednesday during a speech at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “Threats to our space systems are increasing, both disruptive and potentially destructive.”

Vickers’ comments about the concerns of the cybersecurity of space systems are fairly new for the intelligence community. This issue has come up from time to time. For example in August, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics hosted a discussion about this issue with private sector and academia experts as well as NASA.

But this was one of the first times a senior official in the intelligence community has made a point of highlighting the security of space systems.

Additionally, a recent report from the Office of the Director for Operational Test and Evaluation highlighted major cybersecurity problems in DoD weapons systems — many of which depend on satellites to work.

Cyber workforce in progress

While Vickers wouldn’t comment on the report specifically, he said the intelligence community and DoD are moving to new IT systems, such as the cloud, that will improve their cyber posture.

Vickers said the challenges with cyber for the intelligence community stems from the fact that the technologies are both a tool for collection of information and the fact that it has destructive capabilities that the IC wants to stop from happening.

“Over the past couple of years, we’ve built — and are about two-thirds of the way done with this — cyber mission forces to defend the nation against a major cyber attack, to support the operations of our combatant commanders and then to defend DoD’s networks,” he said. “We still have work to do in this area in terms of building the intelligence infrastructure to support these operational forces, but we are fairly well along in that area.”

Part of that intelligence infrastructure is the improvements made over the last decade to the IC’s technology architecture.

“There are even bigger changes to come in the next decade,” Vickers said. “I can’t go into the details, but it will provide much greater persistence than we have today, much greater integration in terms of the system of systems and much greater resiliency. All are important attributes given the importance of our space systems and the threats to them.”

The DoD intelligence community also is developing and investing in advanced crypto analytics systems to protect data and networks.

Tools to limit the insider threat

Vickers said as major new capabilities and cyber actors emerge onto the scene, whether it’s North Korea or Iran or organized crime, they have access to advanced technologies, and the intelligence community’s once considerable capabilities gap is shrinking quickly.

One aspect of the cyber challenge is how best to deal with the insider threat. In the post-Edward Snowden world, that issue remains very much on the mind of every senior intelligence and really any federal official who has to deal with classified data.

Vickers said the IC continues to modernize its security background system through the continuous evaluation approach.

“A change in our security system is something that we are looking to implement governmentwide so it would involve the Office of Personnel Management, the Office of Management and Budget, the director of National Intelligence as well as the Department of Defense and multiple agencies,” he said. “If we do, we’ve had some pilot programs and we are expanding in this area. If we do transform our system it will take some time. It’s a several year process to do that. We will supplement existing systems as well.”

The administration launched a review of the security clearance process after the Snowden incident.

The review recommended, in part, this idea of more often reviewing employee suitability for the position.

DoD conducted several continuous evaluation pilots so far, including one by the Army.

The Army used the Automatic Continuous Evaluation System (ACES) to data from some 40 different government and commercial data sources on about 3,370 Army service members, civilians and contractors. The Army says it turned up previously unreported “derogatory information” on more than 21 percent of those surveyed. Another 3 percent had “serious” information turn up — financial issues, domestic violence or drug abuse — which ultimately resulted in having their clearances revoked or suspended.

Vickers said the other piece of this insider threat challenge is ensuring the workforce is properly educated.

“We’ve invested a lot in expanded training systems for our analysts, for the suite of capabilities that enhance our collectors. The human intelligence collection game requires a lot more and it’s strongly enabled by a lot of back office support that we didn’t have as much of back in my day, but it’s very powerful today,” he said. “So we’re flushing out those teams and making sure we have very adequate training and career paths for these people, both for our uniformed people who work in this area in the department. A number of our services established a new program as well as our civilian workforce. I want to give a particular shout out to the Defense Intelligence Agency, which revamped its analytical training program.”

Still in the golden age

The broader IC reforms, including cyber and the workforce, are why Vickers called this the golden age of intelligence.

He said since 2001 the entire environment has revolutionized both in the technology and the policy guiding the intelligence community. And the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Vickers aren’t done yet.

Vickers said there is greater intel integration than ever before. He said look no further for evidence then the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.

“Director Clapper and I have integrated processes in terms of the national intelligence program and the various forms of military intelligence program and battlespace awareness and other things that constitute Defense intelligence to make sure we are rationalizing our investments across the intelligence enterprise,” he said. “We issue joint guidance to all IC elements every year; it’s called the consolidated intel guidance. I think it generally has produced significant reforms.”

And there are more reforms and integration coming. ODNI is creating the IC IT Environment (ICITE) and DoD is developing the Joint Information Environment (JIE). Those two umbrella terms for systems and capabilities will be integrated.

Vickers said the transformation goes beyond technology, though IT and cyber are marbled through every reform. He said he wants human intelligence to have more capabilities. Vickers added the intel community must to do a better job of projecting power into denied areas, which means getting into places where the U.S. isn’t welcome, and he plans on expanding the “fleet” size of the counter terrorism capabilities.

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