The Pentagon has established the greatest covert team the world has ever seen in the last decade.
This covert army currently has 60,000 members, many of whom labor under veiled identities and in the shadows as part of a larger effort known as “signature reduction.”
The force, which is more than 10 times the size of the CIA’s clandestine forces, carries out domestic and overseas missions in military uniforms and under civilian cover, in real life and online, often concealing in private enterprises and consultancies, some of which are household name enterprises.
The extraordinary transition has resulted in a growing number of troops, civilians, and contractors working under fake identities, partially as a natural byproduct of the rise of secret special forces, but also as a deliberate reaction to the problems of traveling and functioning in an increasingly open world.
Furthermore, the surge in Pentagon cyber warfare has resulted in hundreds of spies operating under numerous fictitious identities, the precise kind of malicious operations that the US condemns when Russian and Chinese spies do the same.
The two-year research, which included the review of over 600 applications and 1,000 job advertisements, hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests, and hundreds of interviews with participants and defense decision-makers, resulted in Newsweek’s exclusive exposé on this secret world.
Nobody knows how big the program is, and the surge in signature reduction has never been investigated for its influence on military policy and culture.
There has never been a hearing in Congress on the matter.
The Pentagon’s development of this massive covert force runs afoul of US laws, the Geneva Conventions, the military code of conduct, and fundamental accountability.
To administrate the new covert world, 130 commercial businesses are involved in the signature reduction project.
Dozens of little-known and secret government entities back the program, awarding classified contracts and directing operations that aren’t publicly acknowledged.
The corporations make almost $900 million a year servicing the clandestine army, which includes everything from manufacturing phony papers to paying the bills (and taxes) of those who operate under false identities.
They make disguises and other gadgets to evade recognition and identification, as well as developing invisible equipment to photograph and listen in on activities in the Middle East and Africa’s most distant regions.
A tiny rural North Carolina firm has a workshop and training facility where they educate operators how to manufacture concealed listening devices into commonplace things.
They are, according to their advertising materials, at the cutting edge, a repository for molding and casting, unique painting, and complex aging procedures.
One such program was alluded to in a little-noticed document dump named “Vault 7” disclosed by Wikileaks in early 2017: nearly 8,000 secret CIA tools used in the hidden realm of electronic eavesdropping and hacking.
It’s known as ExpressLane, and it involves US intelligence embedding malware into foreign biometrics and watchlist systems, letting American cyber spies to steal foreign data.
There are highly advanced encryption equipment, but there are also dozens of different “burst mode” transmitters and receivers hidden in commonplace things like fake rocks.
An agent or operator only needs to pass by a target receiver (a building or a fake rock) to initiate communications with these COVCOMMs, and the clandestine signals are encrypted and relayed back to special watch centers.
There are very sophisticated RFID shields, a radio frequency identification blocking pouch intended to prevent electronic tracking.
Special operations soldiers make up more than half of the signature reduction force, the shadow warriors who hunt down terrorists in combat zones from Pakistan to West Africa, but who are also increasingly working in unrecognized hotspots like North Korea and Iran.
Military intelligence specialists, who are collectors, counter-intelligence operatives, and even linguists, make up the second most significant component, with thousands deployed at any given time under some form of “cover” to conceal their actual identity.
The hidden army that never leaves their keyboards is the newest and fastest growing outfit.
These are the cutting-edge cyber warriors and intelligence collectors who create fake personas online and use “nonattribution” and “misattribution” tactics to mask their true identities while searching for high-value targets and gathering “publicly accessible information”—or even engaging in social media influence and manipulation campaigns.
While the NSA employs hundreds of people, during the last five years, every military intelligence and special operations unit has built some sort of “web” operations cell that gathers intelligence while also looking after the operational security of its own operations.
In the technological age, one of the most difficult aspects of signature reduction is masking all of the organizations and persons engaged in covert activities, including the vehicles and planes involved.
This safeguarding endeavor includes anything from cleaning up the Internet of telltale evidence of genuine identities to planting phony material to protect missions and personnel.
As standardized electronic recognition and biomarkers have become global norms, the signature reduction industry is working to figure out ways to parody and thwart everything from border checkpoint fingerprinting and facial recognition.
This is ensuring that undercover operatives can access and function in the United States, and modifying official documents to ensure that the counterfeit identities match.
Biometrics and “Real ID” are both opponents of covert operations, as is “digital exhaust” from online activity.
One big issue of counter-terrorism operations in the ISIS era is that military members and their families are susceptible, which participants believe is another reason to operate under false identities.
This is competition, influence, and disruption “below the level of armed conflict,” or what the military refers to as combat in the “Gray Zone,” a location “on the peace-conflict spectrum.”
According to a recently retired senior commander in charge of managing signature reduction and super-secret “special access programs” that hide them from inspection and compromise, no one is fully aware of the program’s scope, nor has much thought been given to the ramifications for the military institution.
He is concerned that the aim to become more inconspicuous to the opponent not only obscures what the US is doing across the world, but also makes it more difficult to resolve crises.
The officer commented on the condition of anonymity because he was disclosing sensitive information.
Another senior former intelligence officer, who does not want to be identified because he is not authorized to speak about clandestine activities, claims that signature reduction resides in a “twilight” between covert and undercover activities.
Covert actions are specified by law, need presidential approval, and are formally assigned to the CIA’s National Clandestine Service.
Undercover work refers to law enforcement actions carried out by someone carrying a badge.
The Witness Protection Program, run by the Justice Department’s U.S. Marshals Service, looks after the false identities and lives of persons who have been relocated in return for cooperating with prosecutors and intelligence agencies.