WASHINGTON — Employees at one of the most secretive parts of government have been forced to return to their offices, leading to widespread concerns about their exposure to COVID-19.
Tensions inside the National Security Agency — which is responsible for eavesdropping and digital espionage — bubbled over last week, leading to an all-hands meeting at the agency on Wednesday to address complaints, according to four sources familiar with the matter.
“This has been percolating for a while,” said one former intelligence officer in touch with current employees. “The general sentiment is that NSA has been mishandling things.”
The meeting followed employees posting frequently on internal message boards about their frustrations over the pandemic and the agency’s handling of it. Some of those frustrations have to do with confusion over unclear standards, such as how employees who have been exposed to a potential infection are allowed to use administrative leave in order to safely quarantine, while employees who get sick need to use sick leave to stay home.
The tensions at NSA reflect a larger division within government as it adapts to the pandemic. While many parts of the federal bureaucracy have allowed their employees to work from home indefinitely, those agencies working on classified issues have less flexibility, and the NSA deals with some of the most highly classified programs in government.
A spokesperson for the NSA referred all questions about intelligence community policy concerning COVID-19 to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
“ODNI is monitoring the current uptick in COVID-19 positive rates in the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Area and throughout the country,” a spokesperson for the office wrote in an email. “We have continued to adjust staff contact levels as previously noted — through staggered shifts, flexible schedules and social distancing practices.”
The NSA, like the other intelligence agencies, has returned to near full capacity working in the office, using shift work and other safety precautions.
National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. (NSA.gov)
But some employees are frustrated with a lack of information from leadership on infection rates and whether or not the NSA was following CDC guidelines. There is “too much rumor and anecdote,” said one former senior intelligence officer, referring to the agency’s communication with employees.
Other employees have put in for retirement, if they are eligible, partly due to the risks of the pandemic.
One national security official confirmed the tense environment and the fear over losing talent, but noted that “missions are still largely getting done,” and there isn’t an imminent concern over gaps in intelligence gathering.
Coupled with internal frustrations over the recent appointment Michael Ellis, Trump loyalist and aide to Rep. Devin Nunes, to the position of general counsel, there are concerns over morale.
Over at the FBI, another agency deeply involved in classified intelligence work, employees are struggling with the fact that they are running low on administrative leave after many people used it in the spring. “There have been some exposure scares that sent people home as well, which makes them feel vulnerable,” said one former intelligence officer who mentioned that everyone from “street agents” to senior officials have been “stressed out.”
In late October, Yahoo News reported that other intelligence agencies, including the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, were going through similar challenges.
Unlike many government offices, intelligence work often needs to be done in special locations, like SCIFs (short for sensitive compartmented information facilities), which are protected from outside eavesdropping.
The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in Langley, Virginia. (Larry Downing/Reuters)
Some SCIFs can be mobile, and many of the highest-ranking officials have such facilities in their homes or nearby. A few agencies have even succeeded in allowing employees who deal with open source information to work from home more frequently, and there has been some protection provided by shift work and distancing in office buildings.
Yet allowing intelligence employees to work outside secure government offices poses legitimate concerns about the security of home offices for even routine communications among intelligence officers, some of whom may be undercover and hoping to avoid unwanted attention from foreign adversaries who might be keeping tabs.
However, there are also concerns that the intelligence agencies, tasked with staying on top of the latest threats, were not prepared to execute strategies to keep their workforces safe during the pandemic — a challenge that will likely resurface in the future.
Bill Evanina, the head of counterintelligence, said during a webinar in May that agencies are looking at new ways to allow federal employees involved in classified issues to work from home.
“We’re at a precipice right now to immediately find solutions on teleworking,” he said.
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images, AP
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