Letitia Long reflects on her time at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
How have you seen GEOINT evolve during your career?
When I began my career 36 years ago, there was nothing called GEOINT. We had imagery exploitation, mapping and cartographic services, but there was nothing quite integrated as we know GEOINT today. There was no enterprise across the national and allied systems for geospatial intelligence, and there was no real industry associated with GEOINT.
Fast-forward to 1996, when the lessons learned during Desert Shield and Desert Storm showed a need for an agency that could provide operational context between imagery and mapping, and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) was born. Then in 2003, NIMA became the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and the term GEOINT further solidified the relationship and integration between imagery and mapping. So, in less than a decade, we went from not having anything called GEOINT to a whole community focused around it.
What have been some of the most significant changes in the GEOINT Community during your tenure at NGA?
In the last four years, we have really accelerated the delivery of GEOINT and its significance. It’s been a huge evolution. With the rise of GEOINT, we had integrated the imagery and mapping capabilities of the agency, but we were still largely producing static maps, charts, and intelligence products. We had simply digitized our old processes.
In my time as director, NGA really focused on updating the content—imagery and mapping—in an integrated fashion to provide knowledge and services. The agency is driving toward an environment that is truly integrated. We are organizing the agency around object-based production. Everything is located somewhere on the Earth, so it makes sense that GEOINT is the driver. We’re giving the Intelligence Community the ability to organize its information—whether SIGINT, HUMINT, or open-source information—in context to our GEOINT. That helps us anticipate what might happen next and leads to better predictive capabilities.
What would you consider NGA’s greatest organizational accomplishment during your tenure as director?
It was setting the vision to put GEOINT in the hands of the user, developing the strategy to implement that vision, and then delivering on it. To do that, we had to do a number of things. First, we had to develop our leaders, so the agency had a leadership team focused on developing the strategy and delivering on it. We also incorporated risk management and developed an environment where our folks felt comfortable taking risks. We introduced agility, and we focused on the customer. Intelligence does you no good if it’s intelligence for intelligence sake.
There were two goals in the strategy: deliver online, on-demand GEOINT to the user, and broaden and deepen our analytic expertise. It’s all about the customer. And we have developed the team, not only at the most senior level of leadership, but at all levels, so there is buy-in on the strategy and also so leaders have an understanding of where they fit in the process. And, oh by the way, we had to do this at a time when our resources are steadily declining.
We now have internal business processes that allow us to work through any set of issues. I would say that’s our greatest accomplishment. We are delivering on that vision and enabling our customers to do their jobs better. Whether that is planning an operation, executing an operation, saving lives, or entering into a strategic policy discussion, we’re anticipating what our customers need and delivering it often before they ask for it. We are delivering things they didn’t even know we could do. We are making a difference.
Of what personal achievement are you most proud?
I would tie that back to the last question. I had a real focus on our leader development initiative. We’re still a young agency at only 18 years old. When I came in, I’m not sure folks felt like we always had a seat at the table. We have a seat at the table now. We are a vital component of the Intelligence Community. We have raised the awareness of the GEOINT contributions and are leading the way in so many areas such as driving intelligence integration and taking a leading role in the Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise (IC ITE). That’s due to the focus we’ve had in developing our people, individually and as a team, to put the agency and the community before an individual part of our organization or before ourselves. We have focused on succession management to ensure we’re developing our folks from a leader development perspective and from a tradecraft perspective. We are creating bench strength across the agency at all levels. I think folks really believe they’re an important part of the organization. It takes all of us to make this agency work.
What are some ongoing challenges facing the agency?
Something unique for NGA in the Intelligence Community is commercial competition. I’ve seen the community evolve from a commercial remote sensing perspective. It’s huge what is out there and available to everyone. There is the rise of social media with all of the photos and videos being geo-referenced and time-tagged, and there are whole industries that have grown up around this to include some pretty darn good analytic capability. So the challenge NGA faces is, ‘How do we take advantage of that? How do we harness that creativity in the private sector and put it to work for us?’ Not compete, but take advantage of and add to it. That’s unique in the community and is certainly one of the biggest challenges.
Then there’s the challenge everyone faces—the declining budget. Our vision and our strategy to implement the vision incorporated many cost savings. When we array our data and make it accessible, it’s easier for our own folks to find, it’s easier for our customers to find, and they can often serve themselves. Our country has significant debt, and the largest discretionary component of that is the Department of Defense. We identified every dollar we spend, and we understand our investments. We have stopped duplicative programs and know where we need to invest more. And that’s across the entire agency. As Robert [Cardillo] comes in, he can make informed decisions, and build a budget and understand 100 percent of it. He can see the dependencies and critical milestones in programs and see how a change in part of a program may affect other parts.
Another challenge any organization has is agility—being agile enough to respond to the changing world situation, changing budgets, and changing manpower. Again, our focus on leader development puts Robert in a pretty good place to work through any issues.
You spoke about the need for immersive data and intelligence in your most recent GEOINT Symposium keynote address. How do you envision the Community achieving this goal?
IC ITE is the platform that will enable us to achieve immersion in the data and truly integrate intelligence. That is a necessary but not sufficient condition. We need IC ITE as our backbone to enable us to integrate our information and operate within the cloud. So, as we are all moving toward persistent coverage, we also have to be developing the advanced analytics to handle all of this Big Data. We can’t look at every image. We will never have enough people to look at all of the persistent data we collect. Advanced analytics that recognize patterns can point us to data where human analysis is most needed. Using object-based intelligence, from a multi-INT perspective, we can record observations in the cloud from the same object, we can easily integrate our information, and our analysts can become immersed in the data. We’re beginning to see some of this come to fruition already.
What are some other emerging trends you predict will proliferate in the GEOINT Community?
Gaming and visualization—the way we visualize and present all of this information. The gaming industry is way ahead of us, so taking advantage of their investments will only help. I really do see gaming and visualization as an emerging area in which we must get our folks comfortable operating. We cannot wait for an email to come into our inboxes or an RSS feed to appear. We must embrace augmented reality as another way of living within the data.
Also, automated tipping and cueing. In the same way advanced analytics can help us recognize patterns and steer us in the direction where we need to focus, automatic tipping and cueing between and among our sensors can also help prioritize our resources. At NGA, we refer to the Next Generation Collection Initiative as one that allows one GEOINT sensor to tip another GEOINT or SIGINT sensor directly if it detects unusual activity. We don’t even need analysts in that loop. We have had a number of experiments underway and have just gone operational with one of those.
Crowdsourcing continues to be an emerging trend, as well. Just as we take advantage of commercial and open-source information, we must take advantage of crowdsourcing. We are making our data accessible, and I have challenged our partners to make their data accessible. We used crowdsourcing, for instance, with the Malaysian airliner disappearance. You can never look at that much imagery, that broad and open ocean. So, with U.S. and foreign commercial companies, we posed the problem. Now, thousands of people are looking at that imagery. We’ve done the same with mapping. We buy a lot of commercial data. We don’t have to do it all ourselves. Add transparency to that. This information is available to a whole lot of people, so we must operate in a more transparent environment—which is a good thing, I think. We need to continue to figure out how to do that.
What advice do you have for young GEOINT professionals?
First and foremost, have courage. Have courage to ask questions, to seek knowledge, to take the assignments you may not think you’re ready for. Have courage to ask the question no one else wants to ask but everybody is thinking. Have courage to speak truth to power, which is often passed off as easy to do. It’s sometimes very difficult to do, especially if you’re not in an environment where you feel safe. It’s imperative that folks do that, however. Have the courage to innovate. Folks should always be trying to develop themselves and not only think about the job they’re in and what their next job should be, but the job after that. Sometimes we’re a little shortsighted. And I’m not saying to map out a 30-year career or even a 10-year career, because things change quickly. But, certainly think about the experiences you need in the next job to get you the one after that. That’s good advice for anyone, not just the young and not just GEOINT professionals.
As the first woman to lead a major U.S. intelligence agency, do you have any particular advice for young women in the Intelligence Community who aspire to leadership roles?
Don’t take yourself out of the running. Women have a tendency to hold themselves back. They see a job advertisement or an opportunity to volunteer and often say, ‘Oh, I’m not qualified’ or ‘I’m not the most qualified. I don’t have every single experience listed in that job announcement.’ Whereas men say, ‘I’m only 50 percent qualified, but I’m putting my name in the hat.’ It’s the difference between men and women. Sometimes we’re too nice. I tell women, ‘You don’t actually know what the selecting official is looking for. They’re building a team. If it’s something you want to do, and you have the ability to do it, go for it.’
I don’t mean if you’re an IT professional you should ask to be a nuclear GEOINT lead. But, don’t rate yourself so harshly that you take yourself out of the running. When I’ve had a selection package come across my desk and no women applied or several women that I thought would have applied didn’t, I go talk to them afterward. The rationale for not applying ranges from ‘I know that job was earmarked for so-and-so’ when it in fact wasn’t, to ‘Well, I wasn’t 100 percent qualified,’ to ‘I know Jon or Jim are much better qualified.’ It’s frustrating. That’s my biggest piece of advice for women in the community and young women in particular. They are so qualified, and they need to have the courage to take the risk to put themselves out there. You may not get selected the first time, or the second time, or even the third time. Just putting your name out there gets you recognition, and folks will think about you next time, whether it’s for a special project or a task force.
What’s next for you in retirement after you leave NGA?
Well, the first thing I’m going to do is take a break and spend some more time with my family. My husband has been incredibly supportive, and it’s time for me to give him a little bit back, along with my daughters, my stepdaughter, and granddaughter. I want to spend more time with them and my parents, who are both 88 years old. So, I am going to take a bit of a break. Then we’ll see what’s next. I want to stay connected to GEOINT, to the Intelligence Community, and the larger national security community. I’d like to stay connected in leadership development programs and with women in STEM because that is an area where we absolutely need more women. We need diversity of thought and women bring a different approach to things. Those are areas that I really want to focus on as I come back from my break.
Do you have anything else you would like to discuss?
I have been so incredibly fortunate to have the opportunities I’ve had throughout my career. I can honestly say every job was better than the one before it. I only had one boss that wasn’t as good as all the rest. But, I still learned from that boss. I’ve had so many people mentor me, guide me, and help me along the way that I’m looking forward to giving back. I have mentored folks along the way, and I look forward to doing more. It is all about the people, and I have certainly tried to take care of the people. If you take care of the people, the people will take care of the business. And while it’s mission first, it is people always.
Return to feature story: Conveying Consequence
USGIF founder shared what the beginning of the Foundation looked like, how the GEOINT community has changed over the years, and what receiving USGIF's 2021 Lundahl-Finnie Lifetime Achievement Award means to him.