WASHINGTON – Employees working in one of the most secretive parts of the government were forced to return to their office, leading to widespread concerns about their exposure to COVID-19.
Tensions within the National Security Agency, which is responsible for wiretapping and digital espionage, erupted last week, with four cases, according to a known source, meeting on Wednesday in all cases to deal with complaints at the agency.
“It’s been soaking for a while,” said one former intelligence officer about the current staff. “The general opinion is that the NSA has handled things badly.”
The discussion was followed by staff often posting their pandemic frustrations and agency management on internal message boards. Some of these frustrations are perplexed by unclear regulations, such as how employees exposed to a potential infection can use administrative leave to be safely quarantined, while sick employees must use sick leave to stay at home. .
NSA tensions reflect greater division within the government as it adapts to the pandemic. While many parts of the federal bureaucracy have allowed their employees to work indefinitely at home, agencies dealing with classified matters are less flexible, and the NSA deals with one of the government’s highest-rated programs.
An NSA spokesman forwarded all questions regarding COVID-19-related intelligence community policy to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
“ODNI is monitoring the current rise in the positive rate of COVID-19 in Washington DC, the capital area and across the country,” the agency’s spokesman wrote in an email. “We continued to adjust the level of staff liaison, as noted earlier – through intermittent shifts, flexible schedules and social distance practices.”
The NSA, like other intelligence agencies, has returned to almost full capacity in the office, using shift work and other security precautions.
However, some employees were disappointed with the lack of information from managers about the infection rate and whether the NSA complied with CDC guidelines. “There are too many rumors and anecdotes,” one former intelligence officer said, referring to his communication with the agency’s staff.
Other employees retired if they were entitled to it, in part because of the risks of the epidemic.
One national security official reaffirmed the tense circumstances and fears of losing talent, but noted that “missions are still largely complete” and there is no immediate concern about gaps in intelligence data.
Along with internal disappointments over the appointment of Michael Ellis, a loyal representative of Trump, and Assistant Representative Devin Nunes, he is worried about morale.
At the FBI, another agency that is deeply involved in classified intelligence work, employees struggle with the fact that they need little administrative freedom after many used it in the spring. “There were exposure horrors that also sent people home, which makes them feel vulnerable,” said a former intelligence officer who mentioned that everyone from ‘street agents’ to senior officials was ‘stressed’.
In late October, Yahoo News reported that other intelligence agencies, including the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, are going through similar challenges.
Unlike many government offices, intelligence work often has to be done in specialized locations, such as SCIFs (abbreviated in sensitive compartment information facilities) that are protected from outside eavesdropping.
Some SCIFs may be mobile, and many of the top officials have such facilities in or near their homes. Some agencies have also managed to allow open source information staff to work more often from home, and some protection has been provided for shift work and distance in office buildings.
Allowing secret service employees to work outside secure government offices raises legitimate concerns about the security of offices, even because of routine communication between intelligence officers, some of whom may be secret, and hopes to avoid unwanted attention from foreign opponents holding their ears.
However, there are also concerns that intelligence agencies tasked with monitoring the latest threats have been unwilling to implement strategies to keep the workforce safe during a pandemic – a challenge that is likely to arise in the future.
Bill Evanina, head of counter-intelligence, told a webinar in May that agencies are looking for new ways to allow federal employees involved in classified issues to work from home.
“We are currently in a gap to find solutions to telecommuting immediately,” he said.
Cover thumbnail illustration: Yahoo News; photos by Jasmin Merdan / Getty Images, AP
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