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U.S. State Department To Provide Intelligence via Mobile Devices

Cloud computing drives the modernization for diplomats.

Within two years, U.S. diplomats will receive unclassified/official use-only threat intelligenced through mobile devices. The move toward mobility is one piece of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) broad technology modernization effort.

The INR’s mission within the intelligence community is unique in that it provides intelligence specifically to U.S. diplomats around the world, explained Brett Holmgren, who took over leadership of the bureau one year ago as the assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research. INR also happens to be the country’s oldest civilian intelligence organization, an outgrowth of the Research and Analysis Branch of the Office of Strategic Services, which was disbanded in 1945. Other components of the Office of Strategic Services evolved into the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. Special Operations Command.

Shortly after coming to INR, Holmgren published a 2025 strategic plan that includes digital transformation, which among other priorities, focuses on migrating top secret/sensitive compartmented information (TS/SCI) to the cloud, modernizing the network infrastructure, integrating secure development operations, commonly known as DevSecOps, and developing mobile capabilities to support deployed diplomats.

“In our digital transformation, we know that we are going to need, and plan to leverage in the future, mobile capabilities. We want to be able to—at least when it comes to unclassified information on our state version of NIPRNet—we want to make sure that we’ve got a mobile application that our diplomats can use anywhere around the world to access our open sources products,” Holmgren offered, using the acronym for the Non-classified Internet Protocol Network.

Mobility will be a central component of the bureau’s efforts to enhance open-source intelligence. “As we expand our open source, analytic capabilities, we’re going to need the capability, the technology, to facilitate access to those products and services. So, a year or two down the road, mobile applications is a technology we’re going to have to invest in to realize this open-source vision that we have,” Holmgren added.

The bureau’s primary responsibility regarding open-source intelligence is to provide strategic intelligence and analysis support to the department. “That means that when we look at open source, we are more interested in the types of open-source products, things that help us understand, for instance, the long-term economic policies of, say, the PRC [People’s Republic of China] or the longer-term military modernization activities of our adversaries,” Holmgren said.

Specific examples of strategic open-source intelligence could include publications of academics with close ties to foreign governments, including adversaries to the United States, or blog posts of senior government officials in other countries. As part of its modernization push, INR has established an Open Source Coordination Office to focus on establishing governance over open-source collection and usage, act as a program management office to enhance efficiency with a small staff and ensure State Department officials have the proper training, licenses and tools to conduct open-source research and analysis.

Brett Holmgren
As we expand our open source, analytic capabilities, we’re going to need the capability, the technology, to facilitate access to those products and services.
Brett Holmgren
Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research, U.S. State Department

INR is currently working with commercial providers within the national security arena to think through mobile capabilities. But transitioning to the cloud is the first step. “We’ve got some promising leads, but we’ve got to get into the cloud first. That’s our priority and then we’re going to turn to mobile opportunities in the next, probably, 12 to 24 months,” he said. In an email exchange following the interview, Holmgren clarified that mobile capabilities for unclassified/official use-only products and services will be delivered within 24 months.

The organization is early in its cloud transformation, but using lessons learned from other intelligence community agencies, including the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), could help INR progress rapidly. “A lot of these agencies are much further along their cloud migration journey. We really appreciate the perspectives that they’ve provided as we have just begun our journey. But there are also some shared technologies that we have been able to take advantage of, again, partnering with ODNI, DIA, CIA, in particular, that are cost-efficient for us,” Holmgren noted. “But also, we have the benefit of confidence that these technologies are effective because they’ve already been implemented at these other agencies.”

The bureau is pursuing a multicloud strategy and expects by the end of the year to move many of its applications and application development processes to the cloud. Prior to that, INR used the cloud for data storage only.

Some of the first applications to migrate to the cloud included workforce support capabilities, such as human resources systems and data analytics platforms. Holmgren specifically mentioned the ServiceNow capabilities, which the department uses on its unclassified network. ServiceNow provides the department with cloud-based software-as-a-service solutions on unclassified systems, but INR intends to use the services on the TS/SCI network as well. “The cloud provides a lot more potential for us, both to spin up new applications quickly and to update, patch and modify existing ones faster and more efficiently,” Holmgren noted.

Enhancing and expanding TS/SCI network capabilities, especially to U.S. embassies, is important in part because one of the recommendations from the investigation into the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi was that the department needs to ensure that its diplomats have access to real-time, classified threat intelligence for their own safety.  

Other expected benefits from cloud computing include cost savings, redundancy, business continuity and cybersecurity. “Because we are responsible for owning and managing and operating our TS/SCI network, that helps us from being able to enable real-time threat-based security functions. Monitoring capabilities is one of the areas of focus that we know we’re going to need more capability in as we gradually move a good majority of our applications and our operating environment into the cloud,” Holmgren stated. “Also, it’s going to be necessary for us because we do not have a large information technology staff, a large cybersecurity staff relative to other agencies in the intelligence community.”

Holmgren described his priorities as being in two “buckets.” Redefining how the bureau provides strategic intelligence support to policymakers, undertaking digital transformation, strengthening cybersecurity, creating the workforce for the future and building a modern and resilient enterprise all fall into the business priorities bucket and include both short-term and long-term investments, Holmgren offered. “These are all the things ... we felt were the imperatives we needed to implement as a business to ensure that in a couple of years, we are well positioned to take advantage of a number of opportunities in the world to get ahead of where the global threat environment is going and to make sure that we are postured to be effective in empowering and supporting diplomacy moving forward.”

The “substantive” priorities bucket includes monitoring significant global events, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “We were blessed to have a number of experts and analysts who have followed, previously the Soviet Union, now Russia, for decades in some cases. Some of the experts on our team have provided extraordinary insight, both historical and what it means for the current context to help shape some of the department’s foreign policy decisions when it comes to supporting the Ukrainians and accurately assessing the Ukrainian will to fight in the run-up to Russia’s further invasion last February.”

Holmgren also listed as substantive concerns Iran’s nuclear program and “malicious activities around the globe,” North Korea’s nuclear missile proliferation, which has “grown at an unprecedented rate in the last couple of years,” and transnational cyber threats, economic coercion, and global instability and humanitarian needs associated with climate change and infectious diseases.

In addition to the new strategy and some initial successes toward implementing that strategy, Holmgren listed downgrading and declassifying Russia-related information as a major accomplishment since taking office. “One of the big accomplishments that we have made not directly related to the strategy is our facilitation of downgrading and declassifying intelligence and the role that INR has played and will continue to play in that effort to support intelligence diplomacy around the world,” Holmgren said.

Bureau officials did not know when they created the INR 2025 strategy that Putin would end up invading Ukraine, he pointed out. “So, building and expanding INR’s own processes for facilitating requests to downgrade and, in some cases, declassify intelligence at scale related to Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine is something that we had to address on the fly to ensure we could support everyone from the secretary of state to public diplomacy officers at embassies overseas.”

The INR team also has created an information technology governance board, developed a daily, one-page intelligence brief for the Secretary of State, and released a diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility strategic plan for the bureau.

Additionally, bureau officials created a Foreign Partnerships Unit intended to be a program management office that will establish governance over how INR engages with foreign partners and develop a more formal process for those engagements, especially European Union countries and the so-called Five Eyes nations, which include Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom along with the United States.

“To really be effective in this space, we do need some more centralized and formal management and structure around what had largely been informal relationships and engagements,” Holmgren said. “We’re excited about leveraging this new office and both building new partnerships with—especially the European Union in the context of Russian aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere—but also strengthening some existing, important relationships that we’ve had with our Five Eyes partners and trying to do that in a more coordinated and formal way.”

Bureau officials also plan to consolidate all-source intelligence product lines from about 12 to four. One benefit will be to enhance the ability to share intelligence. “It’s going to help with our ability to provide more of these products to folks outside of the State Department. We’re excited about that, and we hope to roll that out at the end of the summer,” Holmgren said.

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