If your eyes are crossing as you try to dig through the bizarre acronyms and bureaucratic slang of the Trump-Russia story, you’re not alone. The lingua franca required to understand the scandal is Washington D.C.’s national security pig Latin. Readers feverishly engaged with the unveiling of treasonous mysteries have found themselves begging introverted capital cube dwellers for translations. At dinner parties and online you hear, “What’s this about Jared’s SF-86? What do you mean our allies have SIGINT? Why does it matter that Mueller’s office had two SCIFs constructed, and why is that a big deal?”
For this reason, it’s normal that the Trump-Russia saga has seemed less incontrovertible and more exotic because the odd specificity of language required to merely follow along has been, for decades, used exclusively by a tiny sect of analysts, counterintelligence officers, and Congressional staffers. Just as if some of the most important news stories of the day were being published in Koine Greek, it would make sense that only a few weirdos with classics degrees followed the narrative.
Allow me to help translate. Once the indictments drop – and a few already have – you might be interested in this field guide to the buzzwords of DC dorks and intelligence geeks. Here are are a few of the most critical buzzwords you will encounter as the tale of foreign interference in the 2016 election unfolds.
1. NatSec: Shorthand for National Security. NatSec encompasses everything to do with military, intelligence, and geopolitical security, an arcane and vast nexus of government activities that seek to understand the world and deploy resources to advance American interests.
Used in a sentence: “Covering NatSec is very different than writing about business and politics. Just the acronyms and shorthand alone are often impenetrable.”
2. USIC: Shorthand for the United States Intelligence Community, the seventeen agencies that produce assessments of national security risks and opportunities for “customers” in the White House, Congress, and Department of Defense. Also referred to as just the IC. These currently include:
- Office of the Director of National Intelligence
- Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Agency
- Central Intelligence Agency
- Coast Guard Intelligence
- Defense Intelligence Agency
- Department of Energy – Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence
- Department of Homeland Security – Office of Intelligence Analysis
- Department of State – Bureau of Intelligence and Research
- Department of the Treasury – Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence
- Drug Enforcement Administration – Office of National Security Intelligence
- Federal Bureau of Investigations – Intelligence Branch
- Marine Corps – Intelligence Activity
- National Security Agency
- National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
- National Reconnaissance Office
- Office of Naval Intelligence
- U.S. Army – Intelligence and Security Command
Used in a sentence: “When Edward Snowden took off for Russia, nobody in the USIC was happy.”
3. Clearance: Official permission by the US Government to access certain information about national security. To get certain clearances, you need to file an SF-86 form and submit to background checks.
Used in a sentence: “Because of his propensity to vacation in Moscow and conceal his foreign assets in offshore banks, Jim is unlikely to receive a clearance.”
4. SF-86: Standard Form 86. This form is the disclosure required to obtain access to classified intelligence for a government job. On this fearsome 112-page document, applicants list their social relationships, financial situation, and above all, contacts with foreign nationals and foreign institutions. Intentional failures to disclose complete information can result in the loss of your job, or even jail time. And despite what Jared Kushner and Mike Flynn may have told you, no, you don’t get four chances at filling them out.
Used in a sentence: “Jeff Sessions, who met with Russians multiple times, actually left the foreign contacts section of the SF-86 blank. How did he think he wouldn’t get caught?”
5. TS: Top Secret. This refers to information acquired by the IC of which the sources (where we got it) and methods (how we got it) are a critical national secret; should they be exposed, it would cause “exceptionally grave damage” to US national security. TS intelligence products involve the assessments of the IC about a topic which could possibly reveal sources and methods, requiring a high level and control and security around that information.
Used in a sentence: “The senators got a TS briefing about North Korea. Looks like the situation is getting more intense.”
6. TS/SCI: Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information. This is Top Secret intelligence that comes from one of several closely-held, sensitive programs. This information is tightly controlled and only allowed to be seen by people with a TS/SCI clearance and on a need-to-know basis. Only certain members of Congress receive briefings at this level, such as the Chair of Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, House Majority Leaders, and others.
Used in a sentence: “When I get that job working on arms control at the Pentagon, I’ll get a TS/SCI clearance.”
7. SCIF: Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. This is a secure facility built to construction standards that are tested to ensure no compromising emanations – sound, electronic signals, or other. A SCIF is thus safe for the storage of and discussion about secret intelligence. It is the only physical environment where TS/SCI-level intelligence can produced, used, and discussed.
Used in a sentence: “Did you hear? Bob Mueller had two brand new SCIFs built just for the Trump-Russia thing. This must be pretty serious!”
8. HUMINT: Human Intelligence. This form of intelligence collection and analysis is based on interviews of human sources. Information gained from and about individuals is collected in the field, then sent to analysts to be made into finished intelligence, which can then be briefed to relevant customers.
Used in a sentence: “Christopher Steele provided a HUMINT dossier full of explosive allegations. If corroborated by SIGINT and other sources, we’ll have high confidence in our assessment of Trump’s relationship to Russia.”
9. SIGINT: Signals Intelligence. This form of intelligence is based on interception and analysis of radio, radar, electronic communications, and other signatures. SIGINT is the collection of communications between men and machines, and often supports or disproves assessments made by other agencies. Phone calls, radio transmission, emails, and audio recordings are among the types of information collected and delivered to either linguists, in the case of foreign transmissions, or directly to analysts. Some old hands are sticklers for the term COMINT to describe person-to-person communications, such as phone calls, but NSA lifers use SIGINT more generally.
Used in a sentence: “Our SIGINT showed that Mike Flynn spoke multiple times with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador. We can’t believe he thought he wouldn’t be caught talking about sanctions, since as the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, he should have known that the Russian ambassador’s calls to US nationals are routinely intercepted.”
10. Five Eyes: The intelligence sharing agreement between the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Given the special relationship between the US, the UK, and the commonwealth countries, all five nations have agreed to share SIGINT to help assure their mutual security. Often abbreviated as FVEY, it is probably the most powerful joint intelligence operation in the world.
Used in a sentence: “One of Putin’s main objectives has been to destabilize Five Eyes, the collective power of which outstrips Russia’s SIGINT capabilities.
11. Intelligence assessment: A given agency’s stated understanding about a theme or question asked by a customer. After all the raw intelligence is analyzed, and the finished intelligence is produced, an agency forms a coherent story to tell, one in which it has varying degrees of confidence.
Used in a sentence: “I read the IC’s assessment of the 2016 election, and it’s full of examples of how Russia was interfering. They have high confidence in their conclusions.”
12. Confidence level: The degree of faith in which an agency has about its assessment of a current situation. When making a major decision like going to war or placing sanctions on a nation, decision makers want the highest degree of possible certitude. Intelligence agencies thus place low, medium, or high confidence on the assessments they provide. High confidence is not easy to obtain; sources must be plentiful and diverse and provide a compelling narrative.
Used in a sentence: “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.” (from the January 6, 2017 declassified report from ODNI, https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf)
Why Trump-Russia is a unique challenge for journalism
America has never had such a convergence of politics, law enforcement, and national security because the apparent conspiracy to put Donald Trump into the White House required an unprecedented number of covert and foreign actors colluding in secret. There have been scandals in political campaigns, but they have never been a clear and present danger to national security. There have been foreign attempts to affect the outcome of US elections, but never with such an alleged degree of coordination with US citizens. And there have been laws flouted in the course of political campaigns, but never so many and with such an obvious effort to hamstring the legal system by a broad range of confederates after the fact. The Trump-Russia affair is without precedent, and discovering just what happened requires every resource in our democracy – including those normally working in the quiet corners of America’s national security infrastructure.
If all goes well, the general public should never need to concern itself with these buzzwords again.