Prepare for Profound Change

Q&A with Catherine Johnston, DIA’s director of digital transformation and operationalizing IC ITE


Cathy Johnston is the Defense Intelligence Agency’s (DIA) director of digital transformation and operationalizing IC ITE as well as co-chair of the IC ITE Mission User Group. Prior to this position, Johnston was appointed DIA director for analysis in October 2012, during which time she led DIA’s all-source analytic effort. From January 2011 to September 2012, Johnston served as National Intelligence Manager–East Asia with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), where she led the Intelligence Community’s efforts on East Asia. Prior to assuming her position at ODNI, Johnston was Asia mission manager in the Directorate for Science and Technology (DS&T) at the CIA.

Johnston met with trajectory in February to discuss intelligence integration, what lies ahead for the Intelligence Community, how the GEOINT discipline is leading the way with its embrace of open-source information, and much more.

How did you get your start in the IC?

I had the huge benefit in grad school of working for Ken Lieberthal and Mike Oksenberg, who were both National Security Council advisers. During the summer, as grad school was wrapping up, they made a number of calls and introduced me to a variety of intelligence communities. I had spent my time in grad school studying the Chinese military and this was back in the day when absolutely nobody cared about the Chinese military. It was a very different environment. When I started applying to IC jobs, because my focus was on the military, there was a lot of interest in DIA in my field. I applied and got into DIA first. I started in April 1990. My whole point was to do Chinese military analysis. I thought I was going to do Chinese leadership and I ended up doing ground order of battle. And while I was in baby analyst training class, Desert Shield happened. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. And I ended up doing Iraq chemical biological warfare, nuclear missiles, absolutely everything I knew nothing about, and so that started my intelligence career.

How does it feel to be back at DIA following your positions with CIA and ODNI?

It’s awesome. Part of having my time away was also time away from analysis. So it gave me experience in a variety of collection disciplines, into the business of doing intelligence and IC-wide intelligence integration. That really gives you a very different color when you come back and look at the analytic business and the operations and how we should be changing it.

What does your new role as Director of Digital Transformation and Operationalizing IC ITE mean to you? What are your main objectives for the future of DIA?

Let’s start with the digital transformation part. It is all about helping DIA adapt to the 21st century information environment and the 21st century environment writ large. There are a huge amount of changes that have happened in the last 15 years in the commercial world and industry. In the outside world, all of us are living in a very different way than we did 15 years ago when we sent information by fax machines. A lot of government, and particularly the IC, missed out on much of that revolution. Since we have not adapted to it to date, we are now faced with challenges that require us to rethink a number of our assumptions, operating models, business processes, and tradecraft. The most immediate thing impacting the IC right now in that sphere is the Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise (IC ITE). While all of these things have a technical dimension they’re really not about the technology. It’s digital transformation, but digital with a really tiny D. It’s really about operating model adaptation and changing the way we do business and interact. The benefit of IC ITE is that it will remove legacy stovepipes by putting the IC into a single platform. That has profound implications for the IT world, but those implications frankly pale in comparison to how it will enable mission. It will tear down the barriers that prevent the kind of integration we all want to achieve. It will be an evolution to get there. It’s not like we’re going to turn on a switch and have a completely reinvented world.

The way we look at data is closely tied to IC ITE. We need to look at data and treat it as a national asset—at a minimum as an agency asset, as an IC asset. That’s a really major culture change. Yes, there are technical implications. But it has much more to do with the way we handle data sharing policies and the way we cooperate and collaborate with each other.

Open-source information is another aspect of digital transformation. The amount of data that is publicly available rivals our classified holdings. Commercial imagery is a really good beta case for this where you see how much information is available and how much you can do using commercial imagery. It causes you to rethink our culture, what we’ve valued in the past, our tradecraft, how we characterize different standards—all of that. Open source is going to change even more dramatically in the next five to 10 years.

Cathy Johnston meets with an Army analyst assigned to DIA, March 2015. Photo by DIA Public Affairs

We’re also looking at over-the-horizon, disruptive events. The Internet of Things, the move to mobility in the commercial sector. We do not have a particularly mobile framework and the fact that industry innovation is moving to mobile first will present a challenge to us and we will need to rethink some of our assumptions. We’re also identifying new trends in biotechnology and identity intelligence and detection. All of these things present great opportunities but also great challenges to us.

What’s your day-to-day like?

About 30 to 40 percent of my day is reading mostly unclassified papers from industry and some from academia on new, disruptive trends. So block chain technology, just a wide variety of things. Many of them have a technical underpinning, but all of them are about changing business models. Some of them are new industry concepts on how to have effective, agile, organized teams. Some of them have nothing to do with technology; they’re all about how to get things done. I also read Wired and Fast Company religiously.

I spend another major chunk of my time dealing with what I call “ants.” Things that seem very little but are massive irritants and prevent forward progress for some of our pilots. Things like data-sharing policies. In most cases, it’s not the policy, it’s an interpretation of how the policy is being implemented— so really breaking through the “no barrier” when you’re trying to do something new and innovative. If it hasn’t been done before, it’s easy to find a voice that will prevent you from making forward progress; but in almost all cases, those voices are doing a standard interpretation of the way we’ve always done things and there’s usually a reasonable workaround.

In this new environment, we’re looking for unprecedented agility in the way government responds, and this requires that all of our enabling capabilities likewise have unprecedented agility, including our acquisition systems. So I dig into what those options are, learn from a lot of the civil agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services that have been able to figure out agile acquisition, and try to make sure we can learn from their experiences and build a similar system. Things like that are not sexy, they are not a lot of fun, but they are totally necessary to build an environment that allows for the kind of innovation we need.

What’s your team like?

I have a broad team made up of all parts of the agency. We also have service representation and people who have experience with the combatant commands. The core of the team is heavily represented by mission, and we have some high-powered representation from the CIO—in large part because there’s a heavy technical play, but the technology is the easiest part. The implications for operations and technology collection tradecraft are pretty amazing when you look at some of the innovations happening in the commercial world. We have a number of analysts who are on the team, some of whom have experience in the cyber dimension, in future analysis on where the threats are going to be. We have acquisition specialists. We’ve said to them, “We at DIA are good at predicting what the world and the adversary is going to look like in the future. We need you to look at how DIA will need to operate in the future.”

What is the role and significance of geospatial intelligence to the DIA mission?

As an all-source agency, GEOINT is a component of every single problem we look at. As a warfighting agency, GEOINT has a special place in the DoD warfighting requirement set. Probably the tightest partnership that we had when I was director of analysis was with my counterparts at NGA—NGA and NSA—but especially my counterparts at NGA because so much of what we do is to meet the foundational intelligence requires that both NGA and DIA have. When you look at the digital transformation space, the poster child for the intelligence discipline that is changing the most dramatically, in my opinion, is imagery. The advent of commercial imagery, the advent of data analytics tied to those data layers, the rethinking of data, the way NGOs are rethinking data layers and combining them with geospatial analysis is just a prototype. It’s at the vanguard of where all the rest of us are going to be.

Would you say DIA is watching NGA for lessons learned?

My belief is within five to 10 years the majority of the information we’re going to be processing will be open source just because of the explosion in that sphere. NGA is seeing it first because of what is available and open in commercial imagery. We are starting to see it, but we’re all investing in trying to understand those big data analytic methodologies, trying to understand the implications for our tradecraft—things like how to assess reliability for some of these new data sources. They’re just too new. We don’t understand them well enough yet to be able to apply standard tradecraft to them. It is a huge field of exploration for all of us, and NGA and the GEOINT sphere is at the forefront of redefining that.

What are some of the greatest challenges facing the defense intelligence community? How can industry help take them on?

The lack of adequate experience across the disciplines leads to a lack of creativity and inventiveness in thinking about what our business process should be in five years. For example, today we have inventive analysts who can improve upon the business processes they know using the tools they know. But in the architecture of the future, where we have a common IC platform, each of us bringing our existing production processes to that common platform will sub-optimize an integrated response. Because we don’t have enough familiarity with each other’s work processes, because we are still very discipline- and agency-specific, it’s hard to develop what we know we need to achieve in five years. It is helpful that the IC has joint-duty assignments where we seed people throughout other agencies to start to learn those processes, but we haven’t been doing it for long enough.

Generally, if you started off at NGA, you are an imagery analyst and you have stayed an imagery analyst for most of your career. It is a rare analyst who will go from being an imagery analyst to a SIGINT analyst, for example. We don’t have many officers that can understand the production systems within the stovepipes such that they can imagine what a truly integrated system would look like. And that’s what we need to be building. Right now. We need to imagine what that world needs to look like, but because of the lack of exposure, there are few people who can imagine it. That’s what we need a lot more ideation on. We’ll get better as we get more exposure and start doing more real-time collaboration as opposed to working a project first in the GEOINT discipline then sending it to the SIGINT guys to iterate on. With real-time collaboration, I think imagineering will happen and that creativity will be there.

Cathy Johnston presents a Defense Counter-Proliferation (DCP) Outstanding Role Model award to a DCP employee for exemplary representation of the DCP code of professional conduct in July 2015. Photo by DIA Public Affairs

Stovepipes remain our most consistent challenge. Many people say our fiscal environment is, but I actually think that’s not so much a challenge as a benefit. It is a challenge in the near term, no question. But because we’re all feeling the pinch, it’s causing us to look to each other to collaborate.

What has been your favorite job? Why?

I have had so many great jobs. It’s hard to pick. So I’d go with the job that was the most different, the one that took me farthest from my comfort zone. The farthest out of my comfort zone was working at DS&T which took me from being an analyst where I had spent my entire career doing analysis on Asia mostly and all of a sudden getting exposed to every conceivable collection discipline and understanding what all of the other agencies could bring to bear and what their limitations were. The learning curve was immense. When I look back on the job that probably influenced me the most, it would be that one. And it also set me up in great stead to then go work at ODNI and then come back to DIA with a very different perspective of defense analysis.

What advice would you give to young intelligence professionals? Is there any particular advice you would give to young women entering the workforce?

I would advise young professionals to take risks, to take on new challenges, and to constantly be learning and growing. If they are in a position where they are not learning and growing, it’s time to look around. The wonderful thing about the IC is there are so many different kinds of jobs. There are so many opportunities. You should never be bored.

I have a multiple part answer for women. Women especially should take risks because women have a tendency not to take risks. I have a “4-A” strategy for women: ask, act, advocate, and apply. Women don’t ask for challenges, they wait to be identified, to be tapped on the shoulder. It’s called “head down, pencil up syndrome.” You need to ask to go, ask for the challenges, seek them out. Act. If you wait to be told something, you will miss your opportunity. Take the initiative and act. Make a decision, do something. Advocate for yourself. Again, women are not terribly good about advocating for themselves and have a tendency to undervalue what they have accomplished and what they are capable of. I have made a habit of calling both men and women when I have a senior position available and asked officers of all sorts to apply. In 100 percent of the cases, I called a woman and asked her to apply for a stretch assignment she said, “I would never have presumed to think that I was qualified for this job.” And I’d say, “Well, I wouldn’t have called you if I didn’t think you were qualified for the job and I don’t expect that anybody will be perfect at a position the day that they take it.” If there are 10 requirements, women have a tendency to want to see themselves as qualified in all 10 of those areas, and men will apply if they see themselves as qualified for one in 10—and these are all generalities. So women need to put themselves out there more and they need to understand they are capable of so much more than they give themselves credit for.

Describe where you see the Intelligence Community in five years. What trends emerging today will help make this future a reality?

Five years from now, I think we will be so much more integrated—that a number of the impediments that prevent us from having seamless collaboration across the agencies and the disciplines will have evaporated. The majority of our work processes will be informed by big data analytics that will allow us to process far more information than we can even imagine processing today when things are still mostly manually curated. We will be achieving what is today unimaginable effectiveness in terms of mission delivery. We will have a more customizable delivery mechanism for our knowledge. Our customers will be able to extract content the way they want it in a timeframe that is much faster than they are currently able to gain it. And probably most importantly, we will be operating with much more open-source information than we’ve ever operated with. Open-source data and insights from industry, academia, and the open world will become the bread and butter. So that entire relationship between the IC and industry and academia will start to change.


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