The DNI: Not an untenable situation

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.

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  1. Amy,

    I enjoyed that and find myself agreeing with you on all your key points. I’ve wondered to myself why anyone would want to be DNI when you really work for the head of one of your subordinate agencies (CIA). But the fact is the President is in charge (because of: language in and ).

    I’m a big believer in the positive power of technology, and I know a strong DNI with beliefs in technology can make a difference.

    But I wonder, what if we did something radical, like cut the budget (including civpers) of the entire IC by 50%, then used that savings to create new startup organizations operating under IC authorities (and congressional oversight, of course). Would those startups be able to innovate faster? I bet they would soon be competing with the old established organizations in ways that are hard to imagine right now. That might be an interesting thought experiment that could lead us to some suggestions for what the current community should be doing right now.

    So, what would you do with government authorities if you had a budget of say, $5B and an authority to bring 10,000 new employees into the intelligence world? What ways would you find to penetrate adversaries networks and extract the info they don’t want us to have? How would you reduce the amount of strategic surprise we keep getting hit by?


  2. From a friend/colleague: “Definitely agree…but one of the problems is that it’s really hard to make the intel community attractive to really bright engineers. We just lost one of our guys today because he was getting “depressed” working on site. So he took a job with another Silicon Valley company and is headed back to California.”

  3. Good to hear from you. Your thoughts on Twitter have been missed. Technology is not truly the solution when it is being stovepiped into different agencies. The problem first and foremost is a political issue. The DNI position is a political position and as such the IC needs a truly great politician leading it. That is one reason that Mr. Panetta is doing well at CIA. He is a consummate politician. But “The” CIA is not the only issue. Charging the Director of NSA with another star and the additional operational duty of CYBERCOM means that there are now two darlings in the IC – “The” CIA and CYBERCOM/NSA. The Commander of CYBERCOM does not work for the IC. Neither does the Director of NSA but it has made the situation even more untenable than before. So where does that leave the rest of the IC agencies – on the practice squad but possibly not aware that they are now 2nd stringers. This does not mean that there is a lack of talent in these agencies, just that they may not have the ability to get the support that they need in the future because getting support is about politics. It will take some very agile people who can run roadblocks and weave together networks and capabilities quickly. And unfortunately do it while the entire intelligence structure is being attacked on all sides by sharks like Wikileaks, hackers, and those who believe there is no value in spending money on intelligence.

    Sorry to be quite so negative. But we have spent a lot of money on technology and not really gotten that much farther since the real problem lies with the processes and the people of the IC

  4. To answer Bob’s question: I would want three of these “budget authorities” under the DNI.

    1. Establish a smaller version of Google HQ, with highly secured, off-grid energy independent server farms offering the four key functions that Google offers to everyone for “free”: Gmail, Reader, Documents, and Search.

    2. Launch and host the Intellipublia reporting concept on that Infrastructure. This would mean taking the vital re-thinking of authoring tools, and turning it into a service available on Intelink. If it is given tech- and customer service support, and operates in competition with the existing system on an even playing field, I guarantee the old system will die in 3 to 5 years… provided the necessary authorities are amended to allow all 16 Agencies to use the tool.

    3. Establish a Nationwide Scholarship program where high school and college students at all levels can apply for Intelink-U accounts, and earn tuition and/or credits for contributing articles and gardening time to Intellipedia, and for pursuing studies and writing papers addressing areas with intelligence priority. There are already a number of academic programs built around intelligence and homeland security which would be an ideal launching point for this program.

    And while I’m dreaming, I’d like to ask for a PCS to the Lunar base, whenever that happens, okay? 🙂

  5. @kelcy: thanks for the comment. while i agree culture & politics is a huge part of the problem, i honestly believe that technology can influence culture and behaviors. look at how much the iPhone and Facebook have influenced how we behave.

    i witnessed first-hand hundreds of people who wanted to share information but couldn’t b/c of basic technical issues. that’s an opportunity i think the dni could jump on.

    the fact is, there are decision-makers at the top of the dni org chart that don’t want it to be a technology shop. but without a change in legislative authority, dni will not be able to influence change in the ic through policy.

  6. @Amy I agree with you in general on the impact of technology on culture. As I mentioned on @digiphile’s recent blog, William Wallace wrote a book on Techno-Cultural Evolution:Cycles of Conflict of Creation. The overall premise is that we create technology and then technology recreates our cultures. Although slightly dated given the accelerating rate of technology, the book provides a wonderful history of the impact of technology on human cultures. We are now in a time where increasing technological creativity is causing conflict in our cultures.

    The problem is that deep hierarchical organizations resist change. The book above talks about the impact of technology on cultures not on organizations. Intellipedia is the saddest example of that. It did make some changes at the grass roots level, but it has yet to change any of the deeply embedded organizational culture of stovepiped production. Smartphones are not even considered a reality for internal operations within the IC although there would certainly be benefit for adhoc teaming & knowledge sharing using smart phones, tablets and vision walls. But we haven’t learned how to change the deeply resistant culture within the IC in any time short of 1-2 generations – not very agile in today’s world. I wish I knew the way ahead; I only know that it is important to keep experimenting and see if we can get managers involved in those experiments along with the grass roots workers.

    @Tad, I love your ideas especially the one with the scholarship program.

  7. Amy – I believe Jim Clapper may be closer to your vision than many would think, at least in terms of what he expects to actually accomplish during his term. He is a realist, and no tech-nerd, but he has a track record of unleashing technology and hoping for success (both planned and unexpected), while tolerating failure. That’s the key to successful experimentation, but more germane it’s a key to organizational rejuvenation. the IC has _got_ to hire more talented young people, whether poli-sci grads or comp-sci grads… and one key is going to be being able to offer a cutting-edge “work” environment which mimics or bests the kid’s own home environment.

    @bobgourley – I endorse your suggestion and hereby volunteer for the onorous task of running one of these “pirate-ship” innovation-heavy new outfits. In fact, I don’t need the full $5billion, and I certainly don’t need 10,000 people. Give me 500 people and an IT budget of $500 million, give me unlimited ability to read/write/share across and between networks, and then stay the heck out of my hair.

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