“Not on My Watch”

Q&A with Stephanie O’Sullivan, principal deputy director of national intelligence


Stephanie O’Sullivan became Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence (PDDNI) in February 2011. As PDDNI, she focuses on the operations of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and manages Intelligence Community (IC) coordination and information sharing.

Before this assignment, O’Sullivan served as the associate deputy director of the CIA since December 2009. Prior to becoming associate deputy director of the CIA, O’Sullivan for four years led the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology (DS&T), which is responsible for developing and deploying innovative technology in support of intelligence collection and analysis.

Earlier in her career, O’Sullivan held various management positions with DS&T, where her responsibilities included systems acquisition and research and development in fields ranging from power sources to biotechnology. O’Sullivan joined CIA in 1995 after working for the Office of Naval Intelligence. She met with trajectory in March to discuss the foundational nature of GEOINT, the President’s Daily Brief, new technology, and much more.

How did you get your start in the IC?

Sort of serendipity, a little bit of luck. I had just graduated from engineering school and I answered an ad for an ocean engineer. It turned out that it was a large company. I didn’t know it at the time, but they were doing business for the Intelligence Community. The ad was really vaguely worded. It asked for an ocean engineer, I was an engineer. I lived on a boat at the time, so I figured I was qualified. I applied and found out it was really the IC, and I never looked back.

You lived on a boat?

I did. When my parents moved up here we’d always taken sailing vacations. They’d done their final move to live on a sailboat.

Based on your serendipitous path, what advice would you give to young intelligence professionals?

Stephanie O’Sullivan in December 2015 visited Columbia Heights Educational Campus, a multicultural, multilingual public middle and high school located in downtown Washington, D.C. Photo by ODNI Public Affairs

Well, you have to get up every day and like what you’re doing, so seek work that’s interesting, challenging, and motivates you. Look for people that you want to work with and you respect. I found both in my 35 years in the Intelligence Community.

Is there any particular advice you would give young women entering the IC?

Recognize that being different is a strength. In the IC in particular, we can’t afford to repeat patterns or fall into just doing the status quo and hitting repeat, so the people who bring different viewpoints or experiences are particularly valuable. It’s why diversity of viewpoints and avoiding groupthink are really important. I often find myself being in a room—big tables these days—and I ’m thinking, “I don’t think like everybody else here.” But that’s a strength.

What are your roles and responsibilities as PDDNI? How would you describe your day-to-day tasks?

My No. 1 job is delivering on DNI Clapper’s objectives, which is basically summed up in one word: integration. Integrating the Community, integrating our capabilities. The way he puts that into practice is largely by investing in the men and women of the IC. That’s his motivating drive, so that drives what I do. My day-to-day job is unpredictable. It could be everything from administrative trivia—our parking garage, for example, is one of the main features of working here. We’re always told on our climate surveys employees say they love working here, and when you peel into it, they love the parking. So it could be administrative trivia all the way to the incredibly profound. And you just don’t know when you walk in every morning what it’s going to be next. But if I’m lucky, my usual day starts with the President’s Daily Brief (PDB). It’s one of the privileges of my job and one of the most rewarding things I do every day because it is, in essence, the boiled down product of the entire Intelligence Community. You’re seeing everything that everyone throughout the Community is striving to put together. It’s the end results of what they do.

How does investing in the men and women of the IC help meet the goal of integration?

One of the primary signature initiatives we’ve had going since the stand-up of ODNI has been joint duty assignments. It’s about getting the full capabilities of the IC instead of a bunch of, to use the old word, stovepipes. DNI Clapper is trying to demonstrate that we are so much more together than we are as separate pieces. It’s a standard statement, but it ’s true. And I think it’s our secret advantage for the IC in the United States—the ability to know what we know and work together.

What are your thoughts on the future of GEOINT?

The golden age of GEOINT is in front of us, not behind us. I know it’s a well-established fact that GEOINT is foundational, is the starting point for much of what we do in the Community. Even when I worked at CIA, we’d be talking about some operation and the first thing you’d see come out is imagery. There’s a lot more that we could get out of GEOINT than we are today. There are new sources, new analytic techniques, new kinds of capabilities that we can put in orbit, and we can better leverage that which we already have. For instance, training our overhead architecture as an architecture instead of a bunch of single-point satellites.

Being that GEOINT is foundational, how does the discipline help facilitate integration?

GEOINT is probably the most common capability across military, the IC, and the U.S. government. You think of things like FEMA after a disaster. It’s almost the common denominator that all of us, despite all of our different missions, use and turn to more than any other capability. GEOINT is like the common lingua franca across the IC.

What would you consider three of the greatest challenges the IC currently faces?

Well, I was in the Community on 9/11, so not on my watch, I don’t want to see that happen again. The pervasive instability you see around the world. Dealing with the huge scope of change and turmoil in the Middle East. Changes that Russia’s driving and where Europe is going. And big data analytics, both as a threat and an opportunity.

How is Big Data analytics a threat as well as an opportunity?

It’s all about finding patterns in massive amounts of data. We have to worry about things like cover. For our operations, the same techniques could be used against our activities.

What about these challenges keeps you awake at night?

Stephanie O’Sullivan chats with Columbia Heights Educational Campus students and faculty during her December 2015 visit. Photo by ODNI Public Affairs

I spend too much time awake at night, I actually have this formula—about 80 percent of the time it’s worrying about something I might have missed. Whether it’s a factor I didn’t think of, or an opportunity I’ve overlooked. That’s why I value people who think differently. I know what I think. I want to hear from someone who comes from a different perspective that might help me not miss something key. The other 20 percent is worrying that I got something wrong. The business of intelligence is ambiguity, so you ’re always trying to discern insight from scattered pieces of data. You’re always worrying you missed a key piece or you assembled the pieces you had into the wrong picture.

USGIF sits at the intersection of government, academia, and industry. How can industry and academia help the IC take on some of those challenges?

It’s a little simple, but I think academia has new ideas, like strategic opportunities. New technology, new concepts. They also drive new policy thinking, think tanks. I think of academia as new idea possibilities. Industry I think of as new capabilities. Academia produces ideas; industry turns ideas into capabilities—things you can use—at capacity. And then government is about putting those things to use. Now, the government also has requirements to generate new ideas and capabilities, but we can’t do that on our own.

Of all the positions you’ve held, what has been your favorite and why?

Well it kind of changed over time, which is a good thing. It means I’m not regretting that the best job I had was 20 years ago. When I started out, I wanted to be an engineer because I wanted to build things. I had an uncle who built bridges over the Mississippi and I thought it was so cool. It connected two sides of the river and there was something real there. That’s why I was attracted to engineering. And I did that for the first decade or so. And then after a while, I found myself getting pulled into positions where I was building teams or putting together teams of people so they could build things. The last part of my career has been more about building organizations, or in the case of ODNI, community. So it seems like a continuum. You’re trying to do the same thing all the time, create something that will leave a lasting mark. That mark was really easy to see when you’re building things, but then I started realizing that when you hire someone and we bring a new officer into the organization, they could be here for 30 years. I’ve built a lot of cool stuff, but it might have a life of 15 or 20 years. The bigger impact you’re having—the longer term, lasting legacy—is probably in developing those officers. They’re the ones who will carry on and that’s a long-term decision. And then you think about organizations. ODNI is now at 10 years, and hopefully we’ve laid the foundation for something that will go on and help the Community be integrated, connected, and everything it can be for much longer.

What are some things you’ve championed?

The Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise (IC ITE), and that’s integration writ large across our IT enterprises. It’s enabling all the ways that we work together, that we can share information, that we can be more closely integrated. Next is the integration we’re trying to do around things like activity-based intelligence (ABI) and our satellite architecture. Allowing our satellites to tip and cue each other, that’s part of what ABI does. And that’s why I believe we’re at the cusp of the golden age of GEOINT, not looking back at it. Then there are things like our new Cyber Threat Integration Center where we’re trying to take all of the cyber intelligence we have and figure out how to share that most widely with our policymakers and customers across government.

What is a book you recommend to intelligence professionals?

The President’s Book of Secrets by David Priess. I have been waiting and downloaded it last night. I’ve made it to the second chapter. President George H. W. Bush wrote the foreword. The book is sort of a compendium on the presidents’ and senior policymakers’ experiences getting the PDB every day. Which I said in the beginning, to me, that’s the coolest part of the day, where you open that book and see some great collection or some NGA imagery. Or you hear about some assets reporting or an assessment an analyst did. That’s the Community in microcosm and this book is about the history of that. Presidents talk about how they used the PDB and what it meant to them.

So if you’re an intelligence professional that book could help you better realize the fruits of your labor?

Yes, and the sweep of history. That’s sort of the privilege we have being in this business. You’re at the front row watching history happen and helping to inform our policymakers. As intelligence professionals, part of our tradecraft is we don’t do policy. So when I brief the President, we try to give him the most straight-up set of facts and insight we can and then we leave the room and they talk policy. The policy part is their job and you can’t really get sucked into it because then you start cheering from one side. You want their policy to work, but you need to be separate from it. It’s great hearing the presidents’ voices from the past talk about what it meant to them and how they used information. I don’t really see that right now.

I leave and I don’t hear them debating how that piece of information I just told them will inform some choice they’re making. It’s fascinating to hear the presidents talking about how they used all this information.

That’s some powerful perspective.

It’s sobering. It’s a huge responsibility. Which is why I worry about getting it wrong. After I brief, for the next three weeks I’m picking up traffic every day and I’m going, “Thank God I got that right.” You’re watching how things play out and I had told the President,“this is what to look for, this is what might happen,” and then I’m going, “Thank goodness I was right.”

Where do you see the IC in about five years?

I hope I see them doing something new, something different that I never thought of. Because another truism of the intelligence business is that if you’re standing still or repeating patterns, you ’re becoming obsolete, you’re becoming irrelevant because the world doesn’t stand still. I really hope they won’t have forgotten all the reasons we got to where we are today, the lessons about integration, the lessons about working together, that mission focus, but you don’t have mission without people. I hope they don’t forget any of that, but I really hope they aren’t doing exactly what they are doing when I leave next January, or Director Clapper leaves next January. If they do, we will have failed. Because you really have to believe that you’ve brought along the team that’s going to inherit the organization, to be able to respond and adapt and think, not just hit repeat, to whatever new situations they’re going to get, because there are going to be new situations. Things that I never dreamt of when I started are facing us today, so they’ll have their own set of challenges. Anyway, I hope they surprise me.

What are some emerging trends that are going to lead the IC into the future?

Well that stability problem is going to drive change. You just don’t know where you might be looking at a crisis tomorrow. That’s going to be driving the business of intelligence, which is both about trying to be strategic and move forward, but also being at the mercy of the crisis of the day and trying to provide information on it.

The other thing is technology. One of my favorite things to do around here is to champion the researchers and the STEM people because I think they’re cool and they create things. But technology is changing, it’s a truism, it’s changing so fast that the world you will be living and working in 20 years from now, you couldn’t imagine today. That’s both threat and opportunity and the IC is going to have to adapt.

Are there any other topics you’d like to discuss?

Some of the things that I’ll miss most. I’ll miss reading the PDB. The ops guys are great. The analysts are wonderful. I’ll miss those tech and research guys. They can create a new future. You know the analyst takes all of those bits and pieces of information and gives you insight from it, the ops guy responds to the opportunity to recruit the greatest agent ever, but the tech guy or a researcher, you can tell them a problem and they can invent something that changes you. Like cellphones—think about when we didn’t have cellphones. Somebody invented that and it changed everything about how we work.

Posted in: Features, Perspective   Tagged in: 2016 Issue 2, Intelligence, ODNI

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