The largest undercover force the world has ever known is the one created by the Pentagon over the past decade. Some 60,000 people now belong to this secret army, many working under masked identities and in low profile, all part of a broad program called “signature reduction.” The force, more than ten times the size of the clandestine elements of the CIA, carries out domestic and foreign assignments, both in military uniforms and under civilian cover, in real life and online, sometimes hiding in private businesses and consultancies, some of them household name companies.
The unprecedented shift has placed an ever greater number of soldiers, civilians, and contractors working under false identities, partly as a natural result in the growth of secret special forces but also as an intentional response to the challenges of traveling and operating in an increasingly transparent world. The explosion of Pentagon cyber warfare, moreover, has led to thousands of spies who carry out their day-to-day work in various made-up personas, the very type of nefarious operations the United States decries when Russian and Chinese spies do the same.
Newsweek’s exclusive report on this secret world is the result of a two-year investigation involving the examination of over 600 resumes and 1,000 job postings, dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests, and scores of interviews with participants and defense decision-makers. What emerges is a window into not just a little-known sector of the American military, but also a completely unregulated practice. No one knows the program’s total size, and the explosion of signature reduction has never been examined for its impact on military policies and culture. Congress has never held a hearing on the subject. And yet the military developing this gigantic clandestine force challenges U.S. laws, the Geneva Conventions, the code of military conduct and basic accountability.
The signature reduction effort engages some 130 private companies to administer the new clandestine world. Dozens of little known and secret government organizations support the program, doling out classified contracts and overseeing publicly unacknowledged operations. Altogether the companies pull in over $900 million annually to service the clandestine force—doing everything from creating false documentation and paying the bills (and taxes) of individuals operating under assumed names, to manufacturing disguises and other devices to thwart detection and identification, to building invisible devices to photograph and listen in on activity in the most remote corners of the Middle East and Africa.
Special operations forces constitute over half the entire signature reduction force, the shadow warriors who pursue terrorists in war zones from Pakistan to West Africa but also increasingly work in unacknowledged hot spots, including behind enemy lines in places like North Korea and Iran. Military intelligence specialists—collectors, counter-intelligence agents, even linguists—make up the second largest element: thousands deployed at any one time with some degree of “cover” to protect their true identities.
The newest and fastest growing group is the clandestine army that never leaves their keyboards. These are the cutting-edge cyber fighters and intelligence collectors who assume false personas online, employing “nonattribution” and “misattribution” techniques to hide the who and the where of their online presence while they search for high-value targets and collect what is called “publicly accessible information”—or even engage in campaigns to influence and manipulate social media. Hundreds work in and for the NSA, but over the past five years, every military intelligence and special operations unit has developed some kind of “web” operations cell that both collects intelligence and tends to the operational security of its very activities.
In the electronic era, a major task of signature reduction is keeping all of the organizations and people, even the automobiles and aircraft involved in the clandestine operations, masked. This protective effort entails everything from scrubbing the Internet of telltale signs of true identities to planting false information to protect missions and people. As standard unforgettable identification and biometrics have become worldwide norms, the signature reduction industry also works to figure out ways of spoofing and defeating everything from fingerprinting and facial recognition at border crossings, to ensuring that undercover operatives can enter and operate in the United States, manipulating official records to ensure that false identities match up.
Just as biometrics and “Real ID” are the enemies of clandestine work, so too is the “digital exhaust” of online life. One major concern of counter-terrorism work in the ISIS age is that military families are also vulnerable—another reason, participants say, to operate under false identities. The abundance of online information about individuals (together with some spectacular foreign hacks) has enabled foreign intelligence services to better unmask fake identities of American spies. Signature reduction is thus at the center of not only counter-terrorism but is part of the Pentagon’s shift towards great power competition with Russia and China—competition, influence, and disruption “below the level of armed conflict,” or what the military calls warfare in the “Gray Zone,” a space “in the peace-conflict continuum.”
One recently retired senior officer responsible for overseeing signature reduction and super-secret “special access programs” that shield them from scrutiny and compromise says that no one is fully aware of the extent of the program, nor has much consideration been given to the implications for the military institution. “Everything from the status of the Geneva Conventions—were a soldier operating under false identity to be captured by an enemy—to Congressional oversight is problematic,” he says. He worries that the desire to become more invisible to the enemy not just obscures what the United States is doing around the world but also makes it more difficult to bring conflicts to a close. “Most people haven’t even heard of the term signature reduction let alone what it creates,” he says. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he is discussing highly classified matters.