NGA HEADQUARTERS: It’s not often defense reporters listen to a beautifully restrained brass quintet while working.
But Tish Long, the outgoing director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, brought that kind of glamor to the increasingly crucial NGA, so we did get to listen to a unique and pleasing rendition of God Bless America, among other musical accompaniment this morning.
The new director, Robert Cardillo, boasts strong personal ties with President Obama, born of several years delivering the Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB), and he may need them to help him eclipse Long’s successes. Perhaps most famous of Long’s was NGA’s central role in the successful effort to capture or kill Osama bin Laden.
NGA played “an absolutely critical role” in the mission that resulted in bin Laden’s death, Mike Vickers, defense undersecretary for intelligence, noted in a speech during today’s 90-minute ceremony.
If you want some idea how important this is to NGA, you just need to walk through the pretty majestic atrium that binds the two NGA headquarters buildings together. There you can peer at one of three scale models of bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound set up against the wall, complete with model railway trees and tiny barbed wire along the top of the tall walls ringing the compound.
The increasing importance of NGA also was highlighted by a video President Obama prepared for the ceremony. I’ve been to dozens of military retirement ceremonies and three director handovers at NGA and this is the first time I’ve seen direct and personal presidential involvement.
Long’s history-making appointment as the first woman to lead a U.S. intelligence agency was not mere window-dressing, DNI Jim Clapper made clear. While he didn’t offer any eye-opening examples, “I can’t articulate how important it was that Tish broke that glass ceiling,” he told an appreciative audience of senior intelligence operators. Clapper said he thought some of the intelligence community’s past missteps might have been avoided if the conference tables had not been crowded with “guys who look like me.” For the record, Clapper is what might be called an Old White Guy, still the dominant subspecies to be seen at defense and intelligence events.
Cardillo is no stranger to mapping, photo imagery or geospatial intelligence. He becomes the first career NGA employee to rise to director, with a relatively brief diversion to DIA and the Office of Director of National Intelligence. He began his career as a GS-7 photo interpreter.
“Any illusion of a James Bond life quickly dissipated as Ispent my first few days with a top secret clearance tearing stacks of dot matrix printouts into ions-inch strips and filling burn bags — a humbling start,” he noted ruefully.
Cardillo made the effort to take questions from the small press contingent after the ceremony. He didn’t really make news, but did offer some indications of how his experience briefing the president and leading efforts to integrate the intelligence community will influence his tenure at NGA.
When the intelligence community briefs the president, he noted it is “one voice among many” and competes with Congress, industry, the military and others to catch the president’s ear. NGA will have to take the vast knowledge at its disposal and present it to customers such as the president in a concise and useful manner.
Among the technical challenges faced by the agency, Cardillo said they will have to cope “with the big data revolution” and work with start-up companies in New York and California to ensure their software gets used to best effect, “Our door is open,” to the software, space and defense industries, he said. The areas of technical focus at NGA with be “activity-based intelligence” and “structured observation management” too help cope with that.
What’s Cardillo like? He speaks in sentences and paragraphs, which I think is always a good sign for a senior government leader. His speech is precise. When you ask him a question he answers it. It may not be the answer you want or expect, but it’s usually useful and well-stated. From what I’ve heard from his intelligence colleagues, he masters complex and changing situations readily and speaks truth to power.