In a recent speech at Cornell University, CIA Deputy Director David Cohen discussed the secretive spy agency’s struggles with social media, vis-a-vis CIA clandestine officers and operations. The Agency is presented with a real challenge in today’s social media-saturated world, in that it must balance the ability to maintain the “cover” of its clandestine officers with the realities of the social media age.
Imagine for a second that you are a young college student applying to the CIA. Hopefully, you are clever enough to realize that Tweeting and Facebook posting about your desire to become a clandestine CIA employee, and your progress through the hiring process, is a bad idea. In fact, it can result in your being refused employment, according to CIA recruitment officer Ron Patrick.
So, say you avoid that rather obvious and regrettable pitfall, and you are successfully hired by the Agency. Making a decision that you judge wise and prudent, you abruptly shut down all of your social media accounts. You then complete your CIA tradecraft training, and hypothetically deploy to Russia as a CIA case officer. Your Russian counterparts, looking into you as a newly arrived U.S. government employee, then notice that you have a social media identity that effectively “froze” a year or two before, and disappeared entirely around the time that you were hired by the U.S. government. Do you think that would look like a red flag to an intelligence officer hunting for the identities of other intelligence officers? Yep.
The above are just two of the potentially myriad challenges facing the CIA as it adapts to the social media age. Its newest employees will undoubtedly have a social media presence to one degree or another before joining up with the Agency. That is a fact of modern life. And yet, the requirements of clandestine operations remain sacrosanct: A clandestine officer must be able to plausibly deny any affiliation with an intelligence agency if he or she is to effectively do his or her job. That presents many difficulties for those charged with maintaining the cover of the CIA’s clandestine officers.
In Cohen’s own words, “We [the CIA] must find ways to protect the identity of our officers who increasingly have a digital footprint from birth…Likewise, since having no digital trail can raise suspicions too, we also have to figure out how to create digital footprints to support cover identities.” This is tricky business, but nothing the CIA cannot handle. The Agency’s new Directorate of Digital Innovation, in fact, is likely working on the problem as we speak, as alluded to by CIA Director John Brennan in an interview with NPR.
The CIA is nothing if not innovative in its use of cover, and in ensuring that its officers can operate effectively around the world. It excels at this, as a matter of fact, although I will not discuss here exactly how it does so. Suffice to say, there are those in the CIA whose sole day-to-day job includes overcoming the hurdles to cover presented by social media and the new digital age. They do it very well, and their job does not look to be going away anytime soon.