The great challenge for intelligence agencies in the age of Trump was dramatically highlighted this month when a senior South Korean delegation arrived at the White House carrying a secret bombshell message. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un wanted a face-to-face summit with President Donald Trump to discuss Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. Waiting to debrief the South Koreans in the West Wing were Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan.
Part way through their meeting Trump walked in unexpectedly, inviting the stunned South Koreans into the Oval Office and reportedly agreeing on the spot to the first-ever meeting between a U.S. president and the leader of the world’s most secretive and totalitarian state, with which the United States is technically still at war. In doing so Trump bypassed the careful intelligence preparation and deliberation that would normally precede such a ground-breaking move, largely leaving his senior intelligence and national security advisers out of the loop.
Of course, even with a more orthodox commander-in-chief, these would be challenging times for the Intelligence Community (IC). Rapidly evolving technologies available to almost anyone are outpacing methodical processes for gathering, analyzing and presenting intelligence to policymakers for timely decisions, even as threats multiply. To stay on top of that, intelligence chief Dan Coats and his staff ordered a year-long review which they’ve just unveiled – the Transformation Initiative for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).
The initiative will be followed by a reexamination of the entire Intelligence Community, IC2025. Breaking Defense contributor James Kitfield talked with Coats, a former ambassador and senior member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon, a career CIA official who was deputy at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, about that transformation effort. The exclusive interview was edited for length and clarity:
BD: When President Trump first tapped you to be the nation’s top intelligence official last year, the administration was floating the idea of having New York financier and Republican donor Stephen Feinberg conduct a sweeping review of U.S. intelligence agencies. Why did you decide to follow through on such a review, but keep it in-house instead?
Coats: When I took this job I inherited a lot of good work from those who came before me, but given the threat environment and resource constraints relative to the growing U.S. debt and deficit spending, I knew we had to become a more agile and efficient organization. What I didn’t fully realize at that time was that this revolution in technology that we’re experiencing is also forcing us to really up our game. So, from the beginning, my team and I decided that we would go forward with a Transformation Initiative, not only to get ODNI’s house in order, but also to prepare the entire Intelligence Community to become more agile and wise in terms of how we spend money. That’s the purpose of our follow-on IC2025 initiative that will look strategically at the kinds of threats we will face in the future. Because given the growing threats we face, we have to remain the best intelligence agency in the world.
As for why we didn’t adopt an outside-looking-in approach to reform, I decided instead on an inside-looking-out approach. We could have appointed an outside czar or a group like McKenzie to look at transforming the Intelligence Community, but I felt that our own people were smart enough and would know what to do if we just gave them direction. We surveyed IC leadership and the workforce, and from those insights we decided on our transformation vision. We just unveiled that to the workforce and people are excited. They understand this isn’t the ‘same old, same old.’ It’s about how we can better use technology, innovation and out of-the-box thinking.
BD: Before I get into the details of your Transformation Initiative, frame it by talking for a moment about the trends that are driving your reforms and lending them urgency: the growing number of threats, whether from terrorists, non-state actors, rogue states, or major revisionist powers like Russia and China; the rapid advancement of technology that is making all of those threats more potent and unpredictable; and a growing U.S. debt that will make responding to those threats more difficult in the future.
Coats: In all of my years in Congress, as an ambassador, and now as the Director of National Intelligence, I have never seen a threat environment as complex and diverse as what we’re witnessing now. During the long Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, we basically kept a lid on a lot of local flare-ups. When the Cold War ended, it basically wrote a blank check for a lot of actors who were itching to take action against a neighbor they didn’t like, or else wanted to make a grab for power.
As for the technological advancements we are seeing, they are breathtaking. We have to grasp and come fully to terms with the role of technology in asymmetrical warfare. We don’t see foreign militaries lining up tanks any more [to attack us]. They’re attacking us with different techniques and technologies that in some cases are more difficult to counter and attribute. When I was in Europe a couple of months ago with my counterparts from NATO, the Polish intelligence chief told me that in today’s world where we are all interconnected in cyberspace, there are no longer any borders or boundaries. Adversaries can now sit at their computers and penetrate any boundary, and that requires that we think about threats in an entirely different way. So we have no choice but to become quicker and more agile as an Intelligence Community, and we believe our Transformation Initiative will help us get there.
BD: Haven’t you also expressed concerns about Washington’s growing addiction to deficit spending.
Coats: I’m very conscious of the fact that we’ve been into deficit spending for a long time, and that the national debt has more than doubled in less than a decade. Given that more resources will soon have to be devoted to mandatory spending and entitlements [as the “Baby Boom” generation reaches retirement], that is not a sustainable path. So I believe the Intelligence Community has to be very careful how we spend the resources given to us, and to have a good story to tell about the value we add. Otherwise Congress is likely to start pointing its finger at us and accusing us of wasting money that could better be spent elsewhere.
BD: ODNI staff conducted surveys of Intelligence Community leaders and the rank-in-file workforce as part of your Transformation Initiative. In reading through a summary of their responses, I noted that there was still strong support for ODNI’s core missions. Those include integrating intelligence to avoid the kinds of interagency disconnects that allowed the 9/11 hijackers to operate in the gaps between agencies like the CIA and FBI; acting as single voice in advocating for the entire Intelligence Community; prioritizing programs and rationalizing intelligence budgets; and developing long-term strategies for staying on the cutting edge of information technologies. Were you encouraged by that support?
Gordon: Yeah, that’s exactly right. As a former CIA officer, I can remember when our attitude was, “What don’t you get about the word ‘Central’? We can do it all.” So it was absolutely heartening to see that a decade later the Intelligence Community recognizes the need for ODNI to act as an intelligence integrator. I also thought it was lovely that the IC workforce clearly expects ODNI to lead. Our partners are focused on executing against a lot of immediate threats, and they need for us to lead on the big strategic issues like getting the operational model right, and handling big technology challenges like Artificial Intelligence and our cyber posture. That’s a testament to those [ODNI] leaders who came before us and positioned this organization to move forward, rather than constantly having to justify our existence.
BD: The core of your Transformation Initiative is a reorganization that streamlines ODNI intelligence efforts around just four core functions: integrating intelligence from across the Intelligence Community; rationalizing and driving resource allocation and budgets; advancing national security partnerships between the agencies, the private sector and foreign intelligence services; and developing strategies focused on the future for an Intelligence Community often distracted by each day’s burning inbox. How will that change the fundamental nature of the organization?
Gordon: Instead of having 22 entities that put all of these reports and data on my or the director’s desk for a decision, we have aggregated those functions down to four core entities. That will help streamline our processes and lower our overhead through efficiencies, because we have to do that if we’re going to convince the entire IC to lower its overhead. We’re also going to pursue a common knowledge base that everyone can share, because right now we pursue too many things by email rather than tapping into a common database.
We have got to fix that. The reorganization will also help us focus more on leadership development, because part of this transformation is investing more in my people to make sure they have the skills to be effective. Lastly, this reorganization will help us better utilize our most important tool – the budget – to make sure the entire IC is aligned with our priorities.
BD: The four core functions of the reorganized ODNI will each be led by a new Deputy Director of National Intelligence. I was told they will attempt to push decision-making down to the lowest logical tier in the bureaucracy to minimize “analysis paralysis” where few decisions ever get made except at the top. Is that right?
Gordon: Yes. We think by focusing on just four lines of effort we will streamline our processes, and also encourage decision-making at lower levels, where it can actually have the most strategic impact. That’s part of our structural change.
BD: Director Coats, some critics will say your initiative is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, when the larger issue is the tumultuous relationship that the Intelligence Community seems to have with its single most important client – the President of the United States. Certainly the FBI’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion by the Trump campaign continues to cast a shadow over the administration, and President Trump frequently seems dismissive of the Intelligence Community. Doesn’t that impact morale?
Coats: My instruction to the intelligence agencies is that we are here for a specific purpose – to collect information, analyze it, and to provide it to U.S. policymakers unvarnished, non-politicized and without manipulation. We have to adhere to that principle. Yes, there are a lot of distractions that are disconcerting here in Washington, D.C., just like there are disconcerting events taking place all around the world. Given the complex array of threats we confront, we have to keep our heads down, do our jobs as professionally as possible, and, frankly, not waste time worrying about how the politics of it all work out.
Gordon: As a current intelligence officer, I can tell you that we are very proud of our work and respectful of our heritage and responsibility to remain independent. For my whole career there have been people who have questioned our work, and we’re fine with that. We’ve always had distractions swirling around us. We know how to live with them. Sure, we would love to only receive laurels and praise and hugs. But that’s not required. We understand what we do for this nation. So the press makes more of this than is actually felt by those of us in the Intelligence Community.
BD: Much has been written about how President Trump and CIA Director Mike Pompeo bonded during the President’s Daily Brief, which is reportedly a big reason why Pompeo was recently chosen to replace Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. There has been less reporting that you are normally also in the Oval Office for the daily briefings, and your office actually prepares them.
Coats: It’s important for the president to know that I represent the entirety of the Intelligence Community in those Oval Office briefings. We’re trying to put a puzzle together for the president by drawing pieces from all 16 intelligence agencies, in order to get the best picture. So I spend significant hours every morning preparing to tell the president what he needs to hear on any particular day. The principal briefer sits about 25 steps down the hall from me [in the ODNI headquarters at Liberty Crossing], and the law requires that I’m the principle director in charge of putting the briefing together. The president likes it that way, and the Intelligence oversight committees expect us to do it in that fashion.
Now it’s true that the president also wants the CIA Director in the room. I would compare it to a sporting event, where you have an announcer and a couple of “color men” to add context. The CIA Director and I provide context.