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Security

CIA puts the digital revolution at the core of its mission

As part of a major restructuring, the storied US spy outfit creates a new directorate devoted to keeping the agency relevant in the Internet era.

The CIA wants to sharpen its digital game. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Every Silicon Valleyite's favorite buzzword -- innovation -- has been picked up by the CIA.

The Central Intelligence Agency announced Friday that it's creating a new top-level directorate called the Directorate of Digital Innovation, part of one of the largest agency makeovers since its founding in 1947.

The directorate will, according to The Washington Post, assimilate some existing units at the agency, including the Information Operations Center, which evaluates threats to US computer systems and also engages in cyberespionage, and the Open Source Center, which, among other things, monitors social media and foreign websites.

But the new directorate is also charged with getting the CIA ahead of the curve when it comes to the Digital Age.

"We must place our activities and operations in the digital domain at the very center of all our mission endeavors," agency Director John Brennan wrote in a memo sent yesterday to his workforce. The CIA must, Brennan said, "embrace and leverage the digital revolution and innovate across our missions."

The change at the agency comes after a number of headline-grabbing events that have highlighted various cloak-and-dagger activity online.

There was the hacking of Sony Pictures by, the US government says, the North Koreans, which elicited retaliation from President Barack Obama. There was the leak of secret documents by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, which made apparent the huge scope of digital spying by the US, as well as, presumably, its allies and adversaries. There was the arrest and conviction of Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht, which threw a spotlight on the "Dark Web," the Web's shadowy doppleganger, which plays host to all manner of clandestine activity. And there was also the hacking of numerous businesses, such as retailer Home Depot, health insurer Anthem and financial services company JP Morgan, which suggested the vulnerability of financial systems and, by extension, critical infrastructure.

In characterizing the scope of the new directorate's activities, the Post reported that the group will be "responsible not only for devising new ways to steal secrets from cell phones and other devices, but also for helping CIA officers evade detection overseas in an age when their phones, computers and ATM cards leave digital trails."

At a briefing prior to the public announcement, Brennan told reporters from the Post and other news outlets that the CIA didn't want to suffer the fate of Kodak, whose huge film business was blindsided and made irrelevant by the advent of digital cameras. "Things just passed them by," he said.