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.”