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.