Building to Scale and “Creating Anew”

ODNI’s Sue Gordon said today’s Intelligence Community is better than ever, but has nearly depleted the creative acts of its predecessors.


In her keynote speech before a packed house at the GEOINT 2018 Symposium, Susan M. Gordon, the fifth Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, briefed the audience on current global threats, challenged the Intelligence Community (IC) to experiment at scale, and set the stage for changes in the future.

“What will be different now?” Gordon asked. “It will be different because it must be … and because I control the budget of the Intelligence Community.” The audience responded with a round of applause.

Gordon—who served for 27 years at the Central Intelligence Agency and was deputy director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency from 2015 to 2017—today focuses on advancing intelligence integration across the IC, expanding outreach and partnerships, and driving community innovation. She began with a “quick romp around the world,” chronicling threats to U.S. democracy:

  • Russia will continue to use the tool of influence because it’s cheap, low-risk, and offers what they perceive as plausible deniability. They’re likely to pursue more aggressive cyber attacks, and they continue to advance their nuclear weapon systems at a rate we haven’t seen in many years.
  • China will continue to expand its WMD options and diversify its nuclear arsenal as well as grow its space-based reconnaissance efforts. This year, like last, China will conduct more space launches than any other nation.
  • Iran remains the most prominent state sponsor of terrorism and an adversary in the Middle East, especially in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
  • Despite the potential for upcoming negations, North Korea poses a significant threat to the U.S., not just because of its nuclear capability and missile arsenal, but also because of the country’s stunning cyber capabilities.

According to Gordon, the IC is better equipped than ever to monitor and potentially respond to such threats: “better collectors, better technologists, better analysis, better talent than I’ve ever seen walking through our doors.”

But, she warned, “We’ve almost used up the creative acts of our predecessors. Since we can’t draft on them, we—everyone in this room—are going to have to learn to create anew.”

To that end, she said she would help agencies not only build an innovation engine but also strongly support experimenting at scale—which isn’t happening enough.

Gordon said in the future, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) would double down on capability building, human resources, data strategy, and partnerships with the Department of Defense. Investing in artificial intelligence (AI) is important, she said, but cautioned that we must also invest in human critical thinking.

“I love that we are building people whose first language will be Python, but it isn’t going to be enough that someone’s program in Python creates an algorithm that allows us to do something if we don’t understand how it makes mistakes,” she said. “With all the work that’s going on in single-domain AI, we actually have the potential to make the problem worse in the short haul, because we will be able to put more information in front of our analysts with still limited ability to sense-make.”

In these difficult times, Gordon said, the mission of the IC remains the same. She said the Community must maintain ruthless, disproportionate, and relentless advantage.

“That’s all there is. You have to know a little bit more a little bit faster, or we won’t get where we need to go,” she said. Gordon voiced her confidence in the Community and the ability of its members to take on programs and projects.

“The real magic happens when you understand your craft and listen to the universal challenges,” she said, “And you go back and say, ‘I know what I can do about that.’”


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