"Attending the AUSA Annual Meeting and Exposition? So are we. And so could our adversaries."
A post on the social media platform X that reads, “Attending the AUSA Annual Meeting and Exposition? So are we. And so could our adversaries. Know the risks and protect yourself and our technological advantage. Report suspicious activity at #AUSA2023 to 301-974-9076 or acicausa2023@army.mil.” (Photo Credit: Adam Lowe) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT MEADE, Md. - An inconspicuous room hid the hive of activity that was taking place at the largest land warfare conference in North America.

Special agents from Army Counterintelligence Command, also known as ACIC, coordinated counterintelligence coverage of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. for the annual meeting and exposition of the Association of the U.S. Army from Oct. 9-11, 2023. ACIC special agents discussed information given to them by vendors, chased down leads, and provided unclassified counterintelligence briefs to senior leaders by covering agents alongside subject matter experts at the conference known simply as “AUSA.”

Before the event kicked off, ACIC special agents responsible for its counterintelligence coverage met with exhibitors’ security staff to go over indicators of someone attempting to gather intelligence and ensure the vendors knew what to report and how to report it. Agents passed out their contact information and made sure the vendors knew the Army counterintelligence personnel walking around.

“This is our Super Bowl,” said Scott Grovatt, ACIC’s region special agent in charge of the Northeastern U.S., which includes Washington, D.C. “We’re not going to let the adversary play on our football field and spike the ball in the end zone.”

But instead of football players competing on 57,600 square feet of an American football field, Army counterintelligence special agents had to protect 2.3 million square feet of the convention center floorspace. Instead of 22 players on the field at a time, AUSA typically has more than 33,000 attendees and over 700 exhibitors, according to its website, with foreign nationals consisting of roughly 13% of registrants. Even though certain countries were not invited to attend, that didn’t stop a few banned foreign nationals from trying to enter the conference anyway.

While ACIC’s task may seem daunting, coverage provided for the event by the counterintelligence special agents was comprehensive. “Adversaries should know that this is a contested space,” said ACIC’s commanding general, Brig. Gen. Rhett R. Cox. Some bigger vendors also had their own counterintelligence staff on the floor, watching for suspicious activity and collaborating closely with ACIC personnel.

ACIC’s special agents reminded vendors that after-hour socials often come with free alcohol, which may lead to lowered inhibition. With guards down, overly relaxed attendees may reveal more information about their technology to others that they usually wouldn’t. After excessive drinking, they may even say or do something that could compromise their reputation, making them more susceptible to blackmail.

Like any conference, business cards between vendors and AUSA attendees were exchanged and participants made new connections on LinkedIn. While this practice is commonplace and may seem innocuous, special agents said it can sometimes lead to further solicitation of privileged information. These new contacts may ask specific questions only someone with intimate knowledge of the technology would ask in an attempt to gather pieces of the puzzle and gain critical information.

Another way some attendees tried to gain insights was by taking photos of proprietary information on display at AUSA. While this was not expressly forbidden at the conference, it is an indicator of interest. If an attendee asks for a copy of a vendor’s video or slides and is denied, some may just take out their phones and take pictures of the denied information - overtly or surreptitiously.

An adversary acquiring sensitive defense information can not only damage the U.S. military’s strategic advantage in the battlespace, but also can cost a company billions of dollars. In one such case, Noshir Gowadia, a Northrop Grumman design engineer who worked on the B-2 Stealth Bomber and various other propulsion projects, sold secret stealth technology to the People’s Republic of China. He was sentenced to 32 years confinement for selling classified design information.

Historically an organization that said little about their operations and locations, ACIC took a more aggressive and public posture than in previous years. The organization even posted on LinkedIn and X (formerly Twitter) to announce their presence and provided contact information to receive tips. One post read, “Attending the AUSA Annual Meeting and Exposition? So are we. And so could our adversaries. Know the risks and protect yourself and our technological advantage. Report suspicious activity at #AUSA2023 to 301-974-9076 or acicausa2023@army.mil.”

“This is us letting the adversary know there are no more free chicken dinners,” said one person in operations in regards to ACIC’s change in posture.

If AUSA is the “Super Bowl” for counterintelligence, then similar defense symposia and tech expos are more “games” at which vendors need to run a good defense to keep friendly-seeming opponents from scoring their proprietary information and potentially costing them billions of dollars in lost research and development.

If someone has information that may be of interest to Army Counterintelligence Command, they can submit an iSALUTE Suspicious Activity Report at https://www.inscom.army.mil/isalute/ or call 1-800-CALLSPY.