Though DNI Dan Coats and PDDNI Sue Gordon come from different backgrounds (and rival college basketball states), they have teamed up to lead the IC with a shared strategy for the future
In March 2017, Dan Coats was sworn in as the fifth Director of National Intelligence (DNI), and Sue Gordon followed in August 2017 as the principal deputy DNI (PDDNI). A self-described Intelligence Community (IC) outsider, Coats brings a varied background in military service, law, Congressional leadership, and diplomacy to the office. From 1981 to 1999, Coats served in the House of Representatives and then in the U.S. Senate. During his time in Congress, he served on the Senate Armed Services Committee and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. In 2001, Coats was named Ambassador to Germany, arriving in the country just three days before 9/11. He returned to the Senate in 2011 and served on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence before retiring from the Senate in 2017.
Gordon, a career intelligence professional, spent 27 years with the CIA, rising to senior executive positions in each of the agency’s four directorates. While at the CIA, she also drove the formation of In-Q-Tel, a private, nonprofit organization with the primary purpose of delivering innovative technology for the IC. Gordon served as the deputy director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) from 2015 to 2017. In this role, she championed agile governance, recruitment and retention of a diverse workforce, and expansion of GEOINT services to the open marketplace.
In February, Coats and Gordon participated in a joint interview with trajectory, sharing their thoughts on the IC’s pressing challenges, achievements in intelligence integration, the value of GEOINT, and more.
How would you describe your shared vision for the future of the IC?
Coats: Sue and I both love sports. She comes from a basketball crazy state, North Carolina. I come from a basketball crazy state, Indiana. We hate each other’s teams, but we have that in common. That love for the game and friendly competition makes for a dynamic duo. As you know, I come from outside—from political channels, not from intelligence channels. She knows the inner-workings of our 16 intelligence agencies plus the ODNI. She brings a wealth of talent as well as the inside knowledge and skills needed to run a functioning organization.
I bring the ability to work with Congress given all my years there with both the House and the Senate, and in the executive branch as a former ambassador. Those years give me a perspective complementary to Sue’s. We have high regard for this community, what it does, and all it can do. We also have a true understanding of the threats of the future as well as current threats, and the vision to prepare the IC to be the best in the world, providing our policymakers with the very best integrated intelligence from all of our agencies and partners.
Gordon: As the director just mentioned, the most known and immediate responsibility we have is continuing to advance intelligence integration. We work in three domains: to execute against our current mission; to ensure we are replacing capabilities that are lost (either to time or adversaries); and to anticipate how to address emerging threats or how to take advantage of what’s being developed technologically. As you look to the future, the role of technology pervades every aspect of our craft. One of the things the director and I both focus on is how we’re going to ensure technology can be rapidly introduced into our community to change how we provide advantage. To sum up our shared vision: It’s one of an enterprise community, increasing agility, and it demands we maintain the trust of both the IC and the American people.
What are some of the IC’s most pressing challenges?
Coats: We are facing the most diverse set of threats worldwide that we’ve seen in a long time, maybe ever. The kind of conflicts taking place around the world and the threats to our interests are multiple. We have to be on top of our game. The threat of North Korea and weapons of mass destruction around the world pose a significant risk to the American people. There are other conflicts and efforts directed toward Americans either living abroad or here in the homeland from various terrorists groups. We also see a lot of unsettled issues in different parts of the world where the U.S. is being looked to as an honest broker. And, as I go forward detailing the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment to Congress and the American public next week, right near the top—if not at the top—of the list is cyber.
Gordon: It is hard to imagine a more pressing threat than cyber because every aspect of our adversaries’ national intent is going to go through this digital domain, and it allows reach, access, scale, and interaction in ways we are just learning to understand. For me, as someone who has been in the cyber game a long time, what is most obvious is the rate of advance of our adversaries’ capabilities.
It feels like just a minute ago that when we talked about our adversaries in this space, we were talking primarily about Russia, China, and maybe Iran, and that they were doing somewhat complex things but mostly denial of service activities. Now, you see a whole range of cyber actors doing much more in-depth activity, not only denial but theft and manipulation of data. The other thing about cyber is it doesn’t just go government to government. Our private sector is affected by these actions, and they are a part of national security.
We have other pressing challenges in addition to cyber. No. 1 is acquiring the right talent to meet these future needs, particularly those in technology and data. Also, really focusing on speed to innovation. We are innovative people, but getting that innovation to scale and the way we do things is a challenge, and we aren’t alone in that. Another is augmenting intelligence through the use of machines. Everyone is talking about artificial intelligence (AI). I like to focus on the outcome we need to achieve, which is how we augment traditional intelligence through the use of these emerging capabilities.
With regard to cyber, what are your thoughts on the “cyber-location nexus”—or the intersection of the virtual and physical worlds?
Gordon: I love that term. One of the lessons I learned at NGA is that everything is somewhere. For too long we thought of cyber as something that exists out there in the ether that didn’t actually resolve to a location. Location is a really good contextual framework to understand what is happening, particularly when we get to the point where we can see large sets of activity. Location also turns out to be important when you want to respond to cyber threats. When we want to evolve our understanding of both the larger interactions, but also the association of an activity to an actor, location is absolutely crucial to being able to make those moves.
You mentioned integration as a pressing responsibility of the ODNI. How would you describe the IC’s progress toward achieving intelligence integration?
Coats: Integration is absolutely the essential task of ODNI. What we’ve learned the hard way is that if it’s not shared among us, we don’t see the full picture and we may have some gaps that could’ve prevented some wrongdoings. We’ve made light years of progress since 9/11 and the formation of ODNI for that specific purpose. What we see now is our agencies welcome the value of integration and how it is necessary to fully understand threats and give the information to policymakers to address how we respond to those threats. It’s constantly evolving as technology changes. We just have to stay ahead of the game.
Gordon: I’ll pick up on integration through the lens of the Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise (IC ITE). It seems like yesterday, but it was about seven years ago when the community really came to this notion that if we weren’t able to connect on an infrastructure basis we would not be able to achieve the data reach, the human integration, or quite frankly, the security needed in order to be able to integrate at speed and at volume. Seven years later, the ideals of IC ITE are no less relevant than they were on the day we started. What’s exciting about it is we’re coming to the point where we don’t have to talk about IC ITE as a thing as much as it is a foundation that allows us to do things.
There are many things we can do now that are evidence of the achievement of the IC ITE vision and are underpinned by technological advances. We are much better positioned now for future threats than we have ever been. We can do things in terms of cyber notifications that we never could before. When we see threats we can immediately push information out to people who need to act on it. We are able to push insightful, timely, accurate information all the way down range to the field, and we are able to quickly harness big data because we can bring online the computational power that is in the cloud.
We are better able to work across agency lines. We have large, secure multi-INT data sets that we can act on simultaneously. We can stand up communities of interest that allow for data to be worked on together, and we can do that in hours, not days. We can deliver speed to mission that we never could before. The ability to grant anyone across the 17 agencies who has need-to-know access to data—we can do that in hours as opposed to the one to seven days it used to take us. We have a better intelligence picture than we’ve ever had before, and that is mostly represented by what we are able to allow our Defense Department colleagues to access down range by compiling information from disparate sources.
Particularly in the last year, we also are making moves to take the solid foundation that we built technically and now take advantage of some of the new advances in technology. In those seven years the private sector was doing some wonderful things, and we’re working to make sure we have an architecture that can constantly introduce those new capabilities. So if the vision was intelligence integration, and an element was IC ITE because you needed an infrastructure to allow that, I can happily say we aren’t still simply building an infrastructure—we’re now using it in order to actually achieve the intent. It doesn’t mean we don’t have places to go still.
This question is for DNI Coats: How has your varied background shaped your outlook as Director of National Intelligence?
Coats: It has given me the opportunity to learn good lessons. The years of experience I’ve had in these different cultures helped me see how we as a government need to work together to deal with security threats. It involves all three branches of government, and I’ve had some experience in each branch that helps me see a fuller picture of how we need to integrate our three branches so we are on the same page and working together to achieve our goals. I’m grateful for those opportunities and the lessons I’ve learned through experience, and hopefully I can bring that to ODNI.
Gordon: Director Coats’ ability to see the field—in keeping with sports analogies—surpasses mine and most of the IC’s because we’re players; we’ve got our nose down in the trenches, so confident of our intent, so dedicated to our mission that sometimes we think in just relaying that mission the value will be apparent to everyone else.
What I’ve seen in the short time the director has been in this job, through some pretty specific challenges we’ve faced, are three benefits. No. 1, he is clear-eyed about how things work and how you get things done. And boy, when there is something important to be relayed to the policymaker, to be effected through Congress, or to be communicated to the whole community, every bit of the experience he referred to comes into play in tangible ways. The second is sometimes you have to act differently to get the outcome you want instead of just beating people over the head with the story of what you’ve done. That experience, particularly on the Hill, allows him to understand their value proposition in a manner that allows us to be most effective. The third thing is we already have tons of intelligence pros. The director doesn’t have to be the subject matter expert, but understanding where we need to go and communicating that clearly so we move together is a remarkable skill set. We are a good team, but don’t be confused about his ability to see the field and to quarterback.
PDDNI Gordon, this question is for you: What did you learn during your experience at NGA that you are carrying forward in your IC career?
Gordon: My time at NGA was just such a gift. I had a varied career at the CIA, but there are many things I will carry with me from NGA in terms of how we innovate. What geospatial information brings to the table is not just the content it has but also the context—how do you put issues in great, obvious relief?
Also, combat support is a very particular type of intelligence that is slightly different from national strategic intelligence and a lot more tactile. Making sure the whole intelligence apparatus has that sense to it is something I learned at NGA. You have to get data all the way to the edge and make sure the users in the field can do something with the intelligence.
The other thing I learned at NGA is just how urgent our need is to be able to handle data with machines because we’re just being overwhelmed by it. NGA and Director Cardillo were on the forefront of thinking about that future. Agile acquisition is just about how we get faster, and the biggest step we made there was having a clear view of what needed to be done and that’s something I drive here at ODNI. And also various mechanisms of how we engage the private sector, from challenge questions to how you set up secure enclaves so you can work quickly, are all pieces NGA had a head start on.
The other things I’ll carry forward from NGA are the notion of public-private partnerships. Geospatial data is so universally useful that NGA really pushed the envelope of making those data sets publicly available, and I expect that is something we will try and both help NGA further and look at the whole notion of how the government helps the private sector for the purpose of societal gain.
The last piece from NGA is how to effectively communicate your mission to a broad set of stakeholders so they can know how to use what you have. The relatively new intel.gov—a pretty revolutionary website which is a manner for us to communicate to the American people—is a furtherance of the same ideals started at NGA.
Everything I do from this point forward will be affected by what I learned there. Combat support data to the edge, making available publicly what is publicly useful, and being quicker about how we introduce new technical capabilities so we can deal with massive amounts of data are all initiatives I will advance from this position.
What are your perspectives on the significance of emerging intelligent technology?
Coats: It is clear given the collection capabilities we have now, including social media and all the data available for examination, that analysis is becoming overwhelming. We simply don’t have the human capacity to analyze all that collection in an efficient and agile way. Machine learning and AI are going to play a critical role in our ability to put the bigger picture together more quickly. That does not mean machines are going to replace humans. Human judgment will always be essential to determine what we do with that information. What AI does provide is a better look at what we’re facing, and an ability to discard the nonessential in an efficient way and sort out the essential that needs to be looked at from a human perspective. AI shouldn’t be oversold as something that is going to replace the role of the individual who can evaluate information and judge it on the basis of not only what the machine tells you but their years of personal experience.
Gordon: There is a lot of work going on in machine learning and the beginnings of AI that is available in the private sector. We need to get that into the IC as fast as we can. It tends to be single domain, which is, “How can I look at numbers or images fast so I don’t have to have humans looking at them?” For example, looking at license plates as you’re driving through tollbooths—those sorts of things are available to us.
What’s different about the intelligence domain is we don’t need to just process language, speech, or images. We actually need to be able to work across those domains, and that isn’t something the commercial sector is working on right now even though they have the piece parts.
The IC will also need sensemaking in terms of how we take something that is undifferentiated—large data sets from disparate sources—and put it together. That’s a place we would love to get to and probably an area where the government could do some investment and research. There are phases we need to address, but you can imagine a future where if our job is to use information so we can know the truth, see beyond the horizon, and help our partners be able to act before events dictate, we’re going to need not only serious information processing but sensemaking to help us do so.
What would you like to share with the GEOINT Community, specifically?
Gordon: The history of data we have both in foundational GEOINT and on the imagery side will be exceptionally important not only to be able to share today, but as the groundwork for some of these more automated processes. As we talk about intelligence integration, we almost never go into a meeting without a GEOINT product. GEOINT or geospatial information has a role to play in every priority we have and every technology we need to pursue. It is foundational to what we as a community need to pursue.
Letitia A. Long spoke with USGIF CEO Ronda Schrenk about her remarkable career, accomplishments, and advice for those entering the intelligence field.