The Central Intelligence Agency has conducted a series of covert cyber operations against Iran and other targets since winning a secret victory in 2018 when President Trump signed what amounts to a sweeping authorization for such activities, according to former U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the matter.
The secret authorization, known as a presidential finding, gives the spy agency more freedom in both the kinds of operations it conducts and who it targets, undoing many restrictions that had been in place under prior administrations. The finding allows the CIA to more easily authorize its own covert cyber operations, rather than requiring the agency to get approval from the White House.
Unlike previous presidential findings that have focused on a specific foreign policy objective or outcome — such as preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power — this directive, driven by the National Security Council and crafted by the CIA, focuses more broadly on a capability: covert action in cyberspace.
The “very aggressive” finding “gave the agency very specific authorities to really take the fight offensively to a handful of adversarial countries,” said a former U.S. government official. These countries include Russia, China, Iran and North Korea — which are mentioned directly in the document — but the finding potentially applies to others as well, according to another former official. “The White House wanted a vehicle to strike back,” said the second former official. “And this was the way to do it.”
The CIA’s new powers are not about hacking to collect intelligence. Instead, they open the way for the agency to launch offensive cyber operations with the aim of producing disruption — like cutting off electricity or compromising an intelligence operation by dumping documents online — as well as destruction, similar to the U.S.-Israeli 2009 Stuxnet attack, which destroyed centrifuges that Iran used to enrich uranium gas for its nuclear program.
The finding has made it easier for the CIA to damage adversaries’ critical infrastructure, such as petrochemical plants, and to engage in the kind of hack-and-dump operations that Russian hackers and WikiLeaks popularized, in which tranches of stolen documents or data are leaked to journalists or posted on the internet. It has also freed the agency to conduct disruptive operations against organizations that were largely off limits previously, such as banks and other financial institutions.
Another key change with the finding is it lessened the evidentiary requirements that limited the CIA’s ability to conduct covert cyber operations against entities like media organizations, charities, religious institutions or businesses believed to be working on behalf of adversaries’ foreign intelligence services, as well as individuals affiliated with these organizations, according to former officials.
“Before, you would need years of signals and dozens of pages of intelligence to show that this thing is a de facto arm of the government,” a former official told Yahoo News. Now, “as long as you can show that it vaguely looks like the charity is working on behalf of that government, then you’re good.”
The CIA has wasted no time in exercising the new freedoms won under Trump. Since the finding was signed two years ago, the agency has carried out at least a dozen operations that were on its wish list, according to this former official. “This has been a combination of destructive things — stuff is on fire and exploding — and also public dissemination of data: leaking or things that look like leaking.”
Some CIA officials greeted the new finding as a needed reform that allows the agency to act more nimbly. “People were doing backflips in the hallways [when it was signed],” said another former U.S. official.
But critics, including some former U.S. officials, see a potentially dangerous attenuation of intelligence oversight, which could have unintended consequences and even put people’s lives at risk, according to former officials.
The involvement of U.S. intelligence agencies in hack-and-dump activities also raises uncomfortable comparisons for some former officials. “Our government is basically turning into f****ing WikiLeaks, [using] secure communications on the dark web with dissidents, hacking and dumping,” said one such former official.
The CIA declined to comment or respond to an extensive list of questions from Yahoo News. The National Security Council did not respond to multiple written requests for comment.