Soon, the United States will have a new Director of National Intelligence and while I wouldn’t want the position myself, it’s a situation that begs the question, “How can we win here – how can we succeed?” I say we as American citizens and taxpayers, but more specifically we as a former member of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) who spent over a year promoting information sharing at Liberty Crossing.
At first glance, the position of DNI (and the office) is a losing battle. A fait accompli. Bottom line: it suffers from a lack of organizational authority over the Intelligence Community, which remains split by the DOD, where the Military Intelligence Program (MIP) (which includes NSA, NRO, NGA – the eyes and ears of the IC) is directed and controlled by the Secretary of Defense. As long intelligence programs continue to be authorized and funded by defense authorization legislation, the authority of the DNI is in theory, not practice. That’s one aspect.
There’s also a little a agency proceeded by The. Technically, the CIA on the IC org chart reports to the DNI. But this hasn’t been the case, mainly because neither the previous POTUS nor the current POTUS has asked it to. While it might be tricky to gauge the success of a “covert” agency, I think the CIA is doing something right. If it wasn’t, the Executive Office would be be favoring the DNI. But it’s not, as seen in the Chief of Station turf battle and the PDB squabble. Perhaps the DNI hasn’t proven it’s value to the Executive Office. Or perhaps it’s simply human nature to favor the team in which you have more confidence when your own ass is on the line.
Regardless of whose ass is on the line, the main question is: how can the DNI succeed? The easy answer is it can when the President wants it to. Until the President says that the DNI is not just the authoritative agency for the intelligence community but his go-to, the DNI destined to fail. At a recent Palantir Night Live with Michael Chertoff (*disclaimer: Palantir is a client), the former Secretary of Homeland Security commented on the DNI’s current state: “You don’t grow a tree by pulling it up by the roots every year.” Or not giving it the environment and elements it needs to succeed.
Yes, I think the odds are stacked against the DNI. But it’s not an untenable situation. There is a way for the DNI to win (aside from legislative reform and a shift in Executive Office backing) and that’s technology: information, data, networks, platforms, tools, search, discovery, integration, visualization, analysis. The Google play.
I don’t know what James Clapper is aiming to do as DNI, but if he can build off the success of Intelink and leverage analytic tools across it, he’ll be far ahead of his predecessors. Forget who is delivering the PDB. Focus on delivering information and tools to the base, the people actually working intelligence issues. Get rid of the “consultants” and by consultants I mean $150-$300/hr professional-services-white-paper-writing managers with no IT/computer background whose firms front-load their contracts with grandiose promises and hefty price tags. Hire engineers. Hire folks like Jeff Jonas and enlist forward-leaning minds like Michele Weslander Quaid. And let the engineers sell whatever great innovations they come up with on the government’s dime back to the government. Offer a progressive working environment that looks less like a depressing status quo industrial-style grey cube farm and more like Starbucks so 20-somethings who grew up with laptops and coffee shops don’t feel like they’ve entered a sick time-warp joke.
No solution is ever simple. There’s always politics and posturing, like battles over where networks and applications reside and who should be paying for what. And the IC network terrain isn’t that same as the open internet. And offering IT solutions isn’t specifically DNI’s charter. But the network is power. Information is power. Access to information is power. If the DNI can continue to dig in the direction of presenting IT solutions to the issue of knowledge sharing in a siloed world where key knowledge holders are resistant to share beyond their agency walls, it can wield a swift undercurrent of power in the IC. Some agencies and players might buck against this but open source information coupled with a composite of inter-IC sources can threaten any individual agency’s no-play strategy.
If Clapper’s relationship is as strong as Gates makes it out to be, he can take advantage of two key opportunities for the IC: geo-location and the mobile web (which are big plays for NRO, NGA and NSA). In an increasingly geo-located world, location is where it’s at. And in an ever-growing mobile web environment, the trend of using text over voice communications could become a big opportunity for the IC for leveraging effective written language translation services.
I’m not naive or ignorant to the challenges of offering IT solutions in a highly bureaucratic world. Even if the “If you build it, they will come” mantra holds true, it certainly doesn’t mean people will play and stay. However, until the IC operates like the internet (opening agency doors and channels to data and information), I think the DNI is necessary to make sure one agency’s mission or agenda doesn’t undermine the success of the entire community and offering community IT solutions is the best play.