Pride and Progress

DNI James Clapper celebrates GEOINT, embraces transparency


In April 2015, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) celebrated its 10th anniversary. To mark the occasion, President Barack Obama visited ODNI headquarters in McLean, Va., to address the Intelligence Community and thank its members for their contributions to national security. His message, which he repeated several times, was simple yet strong: “You can take pride in your service.”

“I’m here today to pass that message on, to reinforce and underline what [the President] said to the Geospatial Intelligence Community,” Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper said Thursday during his GEOINT 2015 keynote address. “You can take pride in your service. GEOINT is a tremendous force for good in our world, with positive impacts felt way beyond the dimensions of the intelligence mission.”

The traditional 10th anniversary gift is tin, but in honor of ODNI’s decennial, Clapper promised the Intelligence Community and the nation at large a different sort of gift: transparency.

“My dad was in the SIGINT business in World War II and I grew up on intel sites and antenna farms around the world as a consequence … So for me this kind of transparency that we’re now engaged in is genetically antithetical,” said Clapper, who noted despite his hard-wired reticence, ODNI has established the IC Transparency Working Group with members from all 17 intelligence agencies.

ODNI has also supported the USA Freedom Act, authorizing increased reporting of IC activities, and has declassified more than 5,000 pages of documents on its Tumblr page, “IC on the Record.”

“That’s been one of the major takeaways for me from the last three years: Yes, we have to protect our secrets, our sources, and methods, but we have to be more transparent about the things we can talk about—and there is more we can talk about.”

The DNI devoted the bulk of his address to nostalgia, highlighting GEOINT’s current opportunities by way of honoring its past achievements—not the least of which, he said, is the GEOINT Symposium itself.

“I became director of NIMA [the National Imagery and Mapping Agency] two days after 9/11 and helped in a small way to usher in what was a lot more than a name change to NGA [the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency] in November 2003,” recalled Clapper. “In 2004, the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation [launched the Symposium] and it has grown into what it is today: our nation’s largest gathering of intelligence professionals, a terrific celebration of geospatial intelligence, and a great opportunity to exchange tradecraft and promote intelligence integration.”

The tradecraft has grown and evolved alongside the Symposium, said Clapper, who shared with the audience what he considers some of GEOINT’s most significant milestones, such as its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“Our response to Katrina [was] … a watershed moment for the IC and for NGA,” said the DNI, and recalled how NGA assisted the U.S. Coast Guard with situational awareness in the aftermath of the hurricane, as well as subsequent disasters, such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “NGA made a tangible difference in the daily lives of Americans in that region.”

When considered alongside its increased transparency, the IC’s contributions during events such as Katrina—as well as more recent disasters like the earthquakes in Nepal, and even major events such as the Olympics and the Super Bowl—have proven that it is “worthy of America’s trust,” according to Clapper.

“In our increasingly transparent world of intelligence work, GEOINT has a distinct advantage [because] it is the most naturally transparent of all the intelligence disciplines,” said Clapper. He also noted the contributions of industry—but with a note of caution regarding competition.

“Commercial imagery is increasingly important to what we do … Because it’s unclassified we can broadly share commercial imagery” he said. “ … [But] I don’t want to see commercial imagery, with NGA as its champion, competing with our NTM (national technical means) capabilities, with the NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) as their champion. NRO is responsible for developing our NTM architecture and needs to play a leading, responsible role in designing the future of GEOINT architectures that are truly an integration of the NTM systems that we must build and the commercial systems that we must leverage.”

Integration within the IC is not only important, Clapper said, but also possible, as evidenced by the progress of the Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise, including NGA’s push to develop a GEOINT services platform as part of it. “It’s taken us a couple years or so to lay the foundation, but over the last year we’ve been in adoption mode,” he said.

Concluded Clapper, echoing the president’s message one last time: “I couldn’t be prouder of our Intelligence Community and most especially of the Geospatial Intelligence Community. So thank you—all of you—for your service, and for what you accomplish for our nation every day.”

Q&A With the DNI

During a Q&A session following his keynote, Clapper answered some of the audience members’ most pressing questions. Here are some highlights from his remarks:

On responding to cyber attacks like the recent data breach at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM):

“Until such time as we create both the substance and psychology of deterrence, this is going to go on. So what we must do in the meantime is pay more attention to defense.”

On which represents a bigger cyber threat to the United States—China or Russia:

“The greater cyber threat … is Russia. They are very sophisticated. We know more about the Chinese because they’re a little noisier [but] I worry much more about the Russians, who are a lot more subtle about this and have tremendous capability.”

On whether the United States can trust Iran during nuclear negotiations: 

“We’re not in the trust business at all. We go into this with eyes open.”

On UAVs:

“More and more nations are acquiring these, they’ve obviously gone to school on us, and there are still debates about the rules and laws of war as they apply to the use of drones. This to me is another example where policy and international law is behind the technology.”

On whether sequestration is making the nation less safe: 


On the President as a consumer of intelligence:

“He’s a tremendous, voracious user of intelligence. He’s very astute about it and asks great questions … In the five years I’ve been on this job he’s gotten more and more educated … about how the Intelligence Community operates.”


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