During USGIF’s GEOINT Community Forum Nov. 16-18, percipient.ai CEO Balan Ayyar led a facilitated discussion with the Honorable Sue Gordon, former principal deputy in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. They discussed the importance of integrating new technological capabilities into the intelligence community (IC) as well as the challenges and risks that the IC and the GEOINT community as a whole must overcome to restore and retain their advantage against adversaries. The following are just a handful of the questions and answers discussed during the event.
Ayyar: Could you share a few thoughts about what it is like to be in this profession in the environment of great powers that we find ourselves now and if there are precepts from your previous experiences?
Gordon: Putting this moment in historical context, I am optimistic. And I know this is a hard time to feel any optimism, yet I do. Part of the optimism is due to my experience. I’ve seen us as a nation face challenges we had no idea how to overcome. During the ’60s, when I was in elementary school, we had duck-and-cover drills because we thought global thermal nuclear war was just around the corner. I then began my career in the IC, and we were in the throes of the cold war. The IC developed capabilities that allowed us a clear understanding and knowledge to overcome the situation. Then 9/11 happened. We had no idea what was coming next or whether life would return to any semblance of normalcy. Quite frankly, the capabilities within the IC at that time were insufficient. And yet, you look at that moment and say we’ve again found our way. We found our way to new capabilities and to know where we needed to go for information and be able to gather that and build partnerships. Again, we find ourselves in another challenging moment amid the advent of the digital age. Our challenge, we couldn’t see it. We were so focused on the physical world that we couldn’t see how much everything had changed, how interdependent the world is, and what the nature of the threat is with national security. Now we have the opportunity to develop a new craft and new techniques that allow us to go after those threats and adversaries. And we’re doing it right at the time that essential technologies are coming to maturity.
Ayyar: Are these agencies in the IC ready for a technological transformation?
Gordon: Yes and no. I’d start with yes because of who we are and what our purpose is. We try to know more, see more, and understand evermore with precision, always a little sooner. That is and has always been the role of the IC; it is not about secrecy but national security. I reject the notion that we have to be afraid of these technologies or that industry has to be afraid of partnering with the government. We also have this great moment where we can and have to take advantage of the abundant data and new technologies to harness. But we seem to be daunted by the scale and speed with which we are to do it. And we are struggling a bit in part because we only see the risk with technology. But if we go back to the imperative that we’ve been there before and see the advances we’ve made, it’ll be all hands on deck.
Ayyar: From your perspective, how do we convince this workforce to trust machine intelligence in a way that helps them feel strengthened and not diminished?
Gordon: The pull isn’t there, and the development of capabilities will never be enough. And if you ask me why we haven’t seen that pull, the capabilities need to be delivered at decision points that humans make. If you dump them off in the wrong place, they will either lack confidence or be unable to see.
Ayyar: What do you think are the consequences of the IC not adapting quickly to these technologies against potential adversaries?
Gordon: Our adversaries have two attributes we don’t. Our installed base, in terms of how the government functions, is larger than that of our adversaries. Some of our adversaries can implement technology [quickly] because they have the advantage of not having to overcome organizational inertia. But there is also a difference in our values and rule-of-law compared to some of our adversaries. And when presented with this world of possibility of data and data use without the constraints we feel from either a value or policy perspective, our adversaries will jump at the chance to use it. And they will supersede us. But our opportunity comes from the fact we do know how to do this. One of the great strengths of America is that we have been operating globally for a long time, and we do know how to put these things into use.
Ayyar: In your early days as an intelligence professional, there weren’t many nations that had our powerful capabilities of looking at the world from space. We had a decisive advantage. But there is this idea that our advantage has eroded due to the commercialization of this technology. Could you talk a little bit about that difference between now and your early career in the IC?
Gordon: In my basketball career, I got to see the player that I was, and I was a good athlete. But in a minute, there were so many more great players. And that is what I’ve seen in my career in the IC. From the beginning, we had the advantage of operating at a distance, projecting power, and having an information edge. And in a way, yes, that part has been eroded. So, what is the nature of our advantage today? It is in use. I’m not worried about us not being technologically up to date. What I want us to do is to recognize that strategic advantage isn’t the existence of the capability but how you put it into practice. And we have a massive advantage on that. But if we somehow do not introduce these technologies, other nations will catch up.
Ayyar: Could you share with our young professionals the joy you felt about the work you were doing as you look back?
Gordon: There will be those that tell you the America of today isn’t the America [of yesterday] or that the world is too fraught. I reject that notion outright. I encourage young professionals to have a view of the rightness of what needs to get done. First, what is happening in America today is challenging, but we are vibrating with the recognition that we need to be more, and we can’t just let the status quo persist. Second, truth matters, and in intelligence, we are grounded in what is, but we are desperately trying to be able to understand what truth means. It enables you to have both the certainty and curiosity to be able to find context and meaning, and it is that perspective that allows decisions to be made and improves our condition. It is a great time because we have realized the national and global security tent is much bigger than just government work. If you do nothing else, do something of purpose. Do something that advances truth and enables precise decision-making.