The Effects of COVID-19 on the Intelligence Community

Published: April 29, 2020

Federal Market AnalysisCIACoronavirus (COVID-19) PandemicIntelligenceNGIANSA

From altered work schedules and the reclassification of intelligence, to a pause in new acquisitions, even the IC is feeling the effects from COVID-19.

Key Takeaways:

  • Though largely unconfirmed, a disruption to the processes and workflow within the IC community has occurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Presumably, IC employees are facing altered work schedules to adhere to social distancing requirements, and the NGA announced the movement of workflow to unclassified levels for teleworkers.  
  • ODNI is encouraging IC agencies to use Section 3610 of the CARES Act for those contractors unable to perform work at government sites, calling for the minimization of acquisition and new procurement efforts at the same time.
  • Due to the unprecedented response needed for COVID-19, changes to the IC’s process may be on the horizon, such as the categorization of more material to the unclassified level.

For some federal agencies, the transition to mandatory telework due to COVID-19 has been somewhat smooth. For others, especially the 17 organizations that make up the Intelligence Community (IC), presumably not so much. One can argue that the success of critical IC missions depends on the advantages of resources such as Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIFs) and classified networks. However, what happens to those processes when it comes to the demands of the COVID-19 response? Are IC employees still able to keep pace with work demands with limited availability to SCIFs and the classified network? Has the IC managed to allow classified work to be handled at home? If so, what exposure risks are involved? Has the review process now lengthened on classified material? What are the extra annoyances to the daily IC workload due to COVID-19 response requirements? Will the IC be able to retain its coveted trusted workforce once the pandemic has come and gone?

Surely, the demand to shelter at home and social distance during COVID-19 has had some impact on the IC’s operations.

As expected, and understandably so, a majority of IC agencies have not shared how/if processes have changed due to the current pandemic. What we do know (somewhat unofficially) is that there has been a change in employee schedules, a shuffling of work from classified to unclassified at the NGA and guidance from the IC to contractors in connection with the novel coronavirus.

Altered Schedules

According to an article in Defense One, IC agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) are adjusting schedules to allow employees to work in shifts, and during unconventional work hours to limit contact. While such a system allows for continued performance and use of agency resources for classified work, disruptions in the coordination and communication in integrated efforts likely remain.  

Work at the unclassified level

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is taking a slightly different approach, focusing efforts to allow more agency work to be conducted at home. One of these efforts includes the roll out of 7,000 Common Access Card (CAC) readers to telework employees, with 11,000 total CACs expected in the near term, according to Vice Admiral Robert Sharp, Director of NGA. Moreover, the agency is pushing more work to the unclassified level to adjust to employees working from home. Allowing the base of projects at the unclassified level leaves room for continued production for teleworkers, saving the final touches of the effort for the classified level. For instance, the data processing needed to fuel machine learning algorithms has moved to the unclassified level, with the final tool residing in the classified environment.

Guidance to contractors

Upon passage of the CARES Act, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) issued a guidance to IC contractors. In the guidance, ODNI encourages the use of Section 3610 of the legislation to provide pay for contractors unable to perform work due to restricted site access. ODNI instructs contractors to provide separate invoices to the IC agencies to accurately track such expenditures.  

The guidance also provides insight on the IC’s approach to new acquisitions. Within it, ODNI states that it has reduced acquisition and procurement efforts and staffing to meet the changes produced by COVID-19. Furthermore, ODNI encourages other IC agencies to “minimize staffing related to acquisition and development efforts as well. ODNI organizations will not be requesting normal activities in those areas during the crisis. ODNI will support agency decisions, as permitted by law, to slip acquisition and development milestones, even when these are already required by approved documentation, when the rationale is that agencies seek to limit staffing during the critical period for pandemic mitigation.”

Moving Forward

Though IC agencies have not been forthcoming with all the changes it faces in the COVID-19 pandemic, the IC has emphasized that its mission is still intact. Nonetheless, the continued need to shut secure facilities and practice social distancing helps bring to light opportunities for change in the IC world. IC and Congressional leaders have long complained about the IC’s habits to over-classify information. It will not come as a surprise if the COVID-19 pandemic helps shift more work to the unclassified level among IC agencies. Such a change will also have a trickling effect, producing flexibility and diversity in the workforce (i.e. dispersed work locations and ease in security clearances). Additionally, new policies and technologies will be explored as the need to tighten security in new environments arises. Vice Admiral Sharp confirms that change at the IC is on the horizon due to the current crisis stating, “I’ve been real pleased with the way that the workforce is taking advantage of this time to explore new ways of doing business…some of those things are going to become the new norm for us.”