National Counterintelligence Director Evanina about OPM Breach: “Not My Job”

I’ve been tracking Ron Wyden’s efforts to learn whether the National Counterintelligence and Security Center had anticipated how much of a counterintelligence bonanza the Office of Personnel Management’s databases would be. Wyden sent National Counterintelligence Executive William Evanina a set of questions last month.

  1. Did the NCSC identify OPM’s security clearance database as a counterintelligence vulnerability prior to these security incidents?
  2. Did the NCSC provide OPM with any recommendations to secure this information?
  3. At least one official has said that the background investigation information compromised in the second OPM hack included information on individuals as far back as 1985. Has the NCSC evaluated whether the retention requirements for background investigation information should be reduced to mitigate the vulnerability of maintaining personal information for a significant period of time? If not, please explain why existing retention periods are necessary?

Evanina just responded. His answer to the first two questions was basically, “Not my job.”

In response to the first two questions, under the statutory structure established by the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002 (FISMA), as amended, executive branch oversight of agency information security policies and practices rests with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). For agencies with Inspectors General (IG) appointed under the Inspector General Act of 1978 (OPM is one of those agencies), independent annual evaluations of each agency’s adherence to the instructions of OMB and DHS are carried out by the agency’s IG or an independent external auditor chosen by the agency’s IG. These responsibilities are discussed in detail in OMB’s most recent annual report to Congress on FISMA implementation. The statutory authorities of the National Counterintelligence Executive, which is part of the NCSC, do not include either identifying information technology (IT) vulnerabilities to agencies or providing recommendations on how to secure their IT systems.

Of course, this doesn’t really answer the question, which is whether Evanina — or the NCSC generally — had identified OPM’s database full of clearance information as a critical CI asset. Steven Aftergood has argued it should have been, according to the Office of Director of National Intelligence’s definition if not bureaucratic limits. Did the multiple IG reports showing OPM was vulnerable, going back to 2009 and continuing until this year, register on NCSC’s radar?

I’m guessing, given Evanina’s silence on that issue, the answer is no.

No, the folks in charge of CI didn’t notice that this database of millions of clearance holders’ records might be a juicy intelligence target. Not his job to notice.

Evanina’s response to the third question — whether the government really had to keep records going back to Reagan’s second term — was no more satisfying.

[T]he timelines for retention of personnel security files were established by the National Archives General Records Schedule 18, Item 22 (September 2014). While it is possible that we may incur certain vulnerabilities with the retention of background investigation information over a significant period of time, its retention has value for personnel security purposes. The ability to assess the “whole person” over a long period of time enables security clearance adjudicators to identify and address any issues (personnel security or counterintelligence-related) that may exist or may arise.

In other words, just one paragraph after having said it’s not his job to worry about the CI implications of keeping 21 million clearance holders’ records in a poorly secured database, the Counterintelligence Executive said the government needed to keep those records (because the government passed a policy deciding they’d keep those just a year ago) for counterintelligence purposes.

In a statement on the response, Wyden, like me, reads it as Evanina insisting this key CI role is not his job. To which Wyden adds, putting more data in the hands of these insecure agencies under CISA would only exacerbate this problem.

The OPM breach had a huge counterintelligence impact and the only response by the nation’s top counterintelligence officials is to say that it wasn’t their job. This is a bureaucratic response to a massive counter-intelligence failure and unworthy of individuals who are being trusted to defend America. While the National Counterintelligence and Security Center shouldn’t need to advise agencies on how to improve their IT security, it must identify vulnerabilities so that the relevant agencies can take the necessary steps to secure their data.

The Senate is now trying to respond to the OPM hack by passing a bill that would lead to more personal information being shared with these agencies. The way to improve cybersecurity is to ensure that network owners take responsibility for plugging security holes, not encourage the sharing of personal information with agencies that can’t protect it adequately.

Somehow, the government kept a database full of some of its most important secrets on an insecure server, and the guy in charge of counterintelligence can only respond that we had to do that to serve counterintelligence purposes.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

2 replies
  1. bloopie2 says:

    Disagreement No. 1. Oh come on, you can’t blame him. He’s a government bureaucrat. You can’t expect a government bureaucrat to do something that’s not in his job description. I mean, it’s got to be an awfully low percentage of people in the private sector who do that, and you expect a civil servant to do more? Get real!
    .
    Disagreement No. 2. I bet that like many employees today, he is overloaded at work. Do more in the same amount of time, every year. People giving him more responsibilities all the time.
    .
    Disagreement No. 3. The real culprit is the person who left OMB out of Evanina’s job description. And who left [the next hack victim, and then the next one, and the one after that, ad infinitum] out of his job description. Let’s find the person who wrote those up, and crucify her. (With our luck, it will be a committee and we won’t be able to blame anyone.)

  2. jerryy says:

    So his answer is to try to insinuate that the server is some sort of honeypot trap they are using for ci purposes.
    .
    uh huh, sure.

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