Many Americans continue to leave home every day to go to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, including healthcare workers, restaurant workers and even the US Intelligence community.
“Classified work in general can’t be done remotely; we simply don’t have the infrastructure," said Jake Williams, a former analyst for the National Security Agency. "The intelligence community doesn’t have the infrastructure to wire everybody’s homes for distance working from a security perspective. It’s just not doable."
He says while these agencies have contingency plans for everything, including a pandemic, work from home is not an option.
“No question continuity of operations plans are in place. There’s no part of the government that doesn’t have continuity of operations plans. I’m sure intelligence is no different,” he said.
The NSA said in a statement that it, “maintains and rehearses comprehensive plans to remain effective and achieve our missions across a variety of challenging situations."
Still, just the possibility of a threat on top of a pandemic has people like Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-Calif) worried. He serves on the House Intelligence Committee.
“We cannot handle a second front, meaning a terrorist attack or an unexpected attack from a nation state adversary,” said Swalwell.
A possible attack could could take different forms. Either a physical attack or a cyber one.
“A cyber attack does not require the movement of military troops. It’s much harder to see where an attack like that could come from,” said Swalwell.
Swalwell says he’s worried about the November election and another disinformation campaign by the Russians. Williams on the other hand is worried about other targets.
“As we see some of these big problems around unemployment, record levels of unemployment, and record levels of quickly growing unemployment. We’re seeing a lot of these computer systems not able to keep up,” said Williams.
Williams says if an attack took down the unemployment system, that could send the US spiraling.
The NSA did not say what it is doing specifically to secure these types of targets when we reached out to them.
The possibility of coronavirus hitting one of these agencies is also a concern. When Williams stopped working there in 2013, he says social distancing was not a priority.
“Big push towards open floor plans, as many organizations have tried to do for productivity," Williams said. "Hot desking, coming in and sitting down at the same keyboard that others were sitting at before and being within feet of other people. It’s impossible to social distance in some of these work spaces.”
But the NSA says things have changed since then. It says it's responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by implementing recommendations from the CDC, including, "taking appropriate steps such as workplace distancing and increased cleaning to ensure NSA’s people remain safe, secure, and healthy without impacting operational capabilities.“
Williams says one thing the agencies have working for them is they have distanced facilities across the country.
“There’s an NSA Georgia, there’s an NSA Texas in San Antonio, there’s Hawaii out in Kaʻena, there’s a big facility out in Colorado," he said. "It’s gotten geographically dispersed, for a lot of different reasons, but certainly that plays well to this."
Swalwell hopes the intelligence community is taking the right steps to keep their employees safe, so they can keep us safe.
“We’re asking these people to do extraordinary things under dangerous environments. We need them to have the flexibility to protect their own people so they can still serve the country,” said Swalwell.