• Companies working for intelligence community agencies have had to redefine some processes and procedures to ensure mission-critical work could continue during the pandemic. Credit: Shutterstock/NicoElNino
     Companies working for intelligence community agencies have had to redefine some processes and procedures to ensure mission-critical work could continue during the pandemic. Credit: Shutterstock/NicoElNino

Negotiating Secure Work During the Pandemic

September 17, 2020
By Kimberly Underwood
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Intelligence community contractors evolve to serve the national security mission during COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping how companies support intelligence community work, in possibly the largest shift since 9/11, experts say. Facing immediate needs for telework in March, firms had to reconfigure how to support the high-level national security missions of organizations such as the Defense Intelligence Agency, the FBI, the CIA and others.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) proved essential to the trusted intelligence workforce, experts say, as it ensured the continuity of serving the intelligence community, or IC, during this time, said Judi Dotson, executive vice president, Booz Allen Hamilton.

Dotson, along with Christopher Bellios, chief operating officer, Hexagon Federal, relayed their companies’ experience serving the critical IC mission at the 2020 Intelligence and National Security Summit co-hosted virtually by AFCEA and the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) from September 16 to 18. The panelists were joined by Mark Ginsberg, provost and executive vice president of George Mason University, who spoke about the next generation of students that could serve the IC. The Defense Intelligence Agency’s Johnny Sawyer, chief of staff, who presented the agency’s view, is covered in a related article.

“We are incredibly grateful for the CARES Act,” Dotson said. “We think that it gave us the lift we needed to launch into COVID [times] and get through it."

In particular, Section 3610 of the Act’s Title III offered flexibility as to where firms could perform, referring to the provision on federal contractor authority that allowed IC contractors to continue to work or improve skillsets even if they could not physically be on a federally approved site. Bellios was grateful to all levels of the government’s contracting staff, “who worked incredibly long hours with industry and the government to hash out the details of 3610.”

Companies now are scrambling to adjust the workforce environment when the CARES Act provision expires at the end of this month. “When the act first came out, it said it would cover a period through 30 September,” Bellios said. “And back in March, we thought that was plenty of time. And so, now we are looking at the next wave, the next element of this.”

For those workers who had to work in a sensitive compartmented information facility, or SCIF, environment no matter what, the companies had to come up with practices that would lessen the risks of the virus, while continuing to support mission-critical projects.

This included taking the time to separate out any work that did not have to be performed in such a facility, the Booz Allen Hamilton executive said. “I think that at scale we looked at decoupling what is classified and what is not classified, and we opened up the aperture into the unclassified work—and that is a breakthrough,” Dotson shared.

Hexagon’s approach included creating addition scheduling and processes. “A lot of our people supporting IC industries have a SCIF,” Bellios stated. “For those people we had to have an immediate plan. We created three shifts, to make sure there was proper spacing and proper mask policies to ensure that we could continue to maintain operations within our SCIFs.”

Bellios also suggested that the government should consider expanding the use of corporate SCIFs. “Industry can help with SCIFs, and there are many companies that have SCIFs,” he clarified. “I think the area of focus here is on developing a broader co-use accreditation, much like badge reciprocity. The time has come to consider mutual agreements with regard to SCIFs that will allow a little bit more flexibility and an ability to work off premise with greater latitude.”

Dobson added, “I don’t think we want every individual project team building their own SCIF infrastructure, but additional SCIF space or having distributed SCIF architectures or classified architectures that are connected and that are shared or co-used, we need to think about how we can do that.”

The U.S. Senate’s version of the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), S. 4049, does contain a provision about a more efficient use of SCIFs. Section 1052 of Title X stipulates that the Director of National Intelligence—consulting with the Secretary of Defense—must issue “revised guidance” about the use of previously approved facilities, and how government agencies and appropriately-cleared contractors will process, store, use and discuss sensitive information at those facilities “without need for further approval by agency or by site.”

The experts also noted that the pandemic has opened new possibilities for talent management. Given that workers can be remote, they can be recruited from outside a traditional workforce region.

“Real estate in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area is going to change forever, in regard to our industry,” Bellios said. “Remote work is a necessity now. And it will allow us to entice employees that are geographically dispersed, who in the past were a challenge to recruit because maybe they didn’t want to or couldn’t afford to live in the D.C. Metropolitan area.”

Other useful practices the IC companies employed when the pandemic hit included relying on industry organizations and creating task forces or working groups. “I have to give credit to AFCEA and to INSA,” Bellios offered. “They pivoted to the virtual environment extremely fast, and in many cases I would say, we were able to hear from our agency representatives virtually and a lot more often than we had prior to all this. So, in some cases, the pandemic actually improved communication.”

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