The State of the Intelligence Community: A Conversation with former NGA Director Robert Cardillo

In this latest episode of The Burn Bag, hosts A’ndre Gonawela and Ryan Rosenthal talk to Robert Cardillo, former Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) on a variety of important topics pertaining to the state of the intelligence community. We discuss the relationship between the intelligence community and policymakers, NGA monitoring our adversaries, the future of intelligence in the Biden administration, and the importance of intelligence in a world that is increasingly becoming more connected. Robert provides us with key insights on how the NGA works together with the other intelligence agencies and the strides the intelligence community made in integrating the community, highlighting their cooperation during the Ghouta Chemical Attack in the Summer of 2013. We cap off the interview with Director Cardillo’s thoughts on returning to government and the ‘remarkable’ talent of the Biden team.

[00:04:23] Tension between intel providers and consumers: “There is always a tension between those that provide intelligence and those who consume it. As some have observed, those that provide intelligence tend to see the world as it is and those that consume it, policy makers, tend to see the world as they want it to be. So that tension is natural. What was unnatural under President Trump and his leadership, appeared to be a purposeful campaign to undermine the standing of the intelligence community: its independence, its impartiality, its apolitical nature.” 

[00:08:47] Preparing the Presidential Daily Brief: “When I would edit the book, before it would go to the press…I would use two questions, two central questions to decide whether or not it needs to be in the book. The first question was, rather straightforwardly, ‘Why does the President need to know this.’ The second questions is, ‘Why does he need it now.’” 

[11:11:40] What is the NGA?: “This agency is charged by our government, both Defense Department and intelligence community to literally know this planet. That means every geographic feature, every elevation point, every vertical obstruction, above and below sea level. In order to have a rigid and authoritative model, a 3D model upon which we can do the rest of our job. The first job is that framing job. You could associate it with mapping, charting and those kinds of activities. We do that in order to do the second job, which is…all about navigation, and targeting.”

[00:13:29] NGA and the GPS Satellite: “NGA does not build, fly or own the GPS satellite. But NGA does the math on the GPS satellites to make sure we know they are where they should be so that when they sense your signal and do their triangulation, that math can be as good as it can be.”

[00:18:52] How NGA Connects the dots: “Quite frankly, NGA is often the fabric, the framework that brings together what could be misinterpreted as misinterpreted dots.” 

[00:20:11] Confirmation Bias in the Intelligence world: “In the intelligence world, one of the things you have to be careful about is the confirmation bias. You really want the answer to be Bin Laden is hiding there. So you keep adding anything that can contribute to that conclusion and discount anything that doesn’t. 

[00:20:40] Role of NGA in the Bin Laden Raid: “Because it’s black and white, picture is what a picture is, it helped clarify- again there was no conclusion that Bin Laden was there, it was a call. It helped clarify for the President the opportunity of the analytical being right but also the consequences of it not being right. NGA provides that background, that framework, for somebody like the president to be able to weigh all the intelligence and reach a conclusion.”

[00:27:08] Imagery Analysis during the cold war: “I was an imagery analyst back in the Eighties, where adversaries in those days were the Soviet Union, a singular, monolith opponent. One of my jobs in those days was to measure dirt piles as the soviets were building extensions to the Moscow subway. Quite frankly, I tilted my head and inquired why I was measuring these dirt piles. Well I was measuring dirt piles to understand how deep the subways were going because it was a dual used subway. It helped people commute but it was also going to be used for leadership relocation. They were going to use them as a deep underground. It’s mundane but it’s important. In order to be able to stay ahead of the adversaries sometimes you have to do things like that to try to infer capability and intent.”

[00:30:38] Succeeding in the”open” world: “I used the phrase when I led NGA, ‘We need to figure out how we are going to succeed in the open.’ Meaning we have had a successful past in the classified world, but how do we project advantage and insight in an open world? I would tell the same thing to the Defense Department and the CIA. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have secrets, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have protected capabilities, but broadly speaking the world is just going to continue to become more open. So how do you achieve success in such an open world?”

[00:41:57] Syria’s chemical weapons and proving the ODNI model: “Summer of 2013, there was an event in the Damascus suburbs in which many citizens were complaining about some sort of an attack that caused asphyxiation, sickness, and in some cases death. There was an allegation of chemical weapons usage. And I recall it distinctly since the early reporting came in the early afternoon in August. By the next morning we presented in the Presidential Daily Briefing, what was 90% accurate about what ultimately happened…But the only reason we could get that close to what was ultimately the truth was because of the gains we had made in integrating the community. It was a marriage of NSA, NGA,  DIA, and CIA coming together.”

[00:46:38] THE CLIMATE CRISIS: “It is pretty well known that the Intelligence Community has dipped its toe on these issues, it now has drawn back a bit under the current administration, I think that will rise again. One of the proudest things I was able to oversee as Director of NGA was our production of Digital Elevation Matrices, DEMs, basically elevation models of both of our poles, the Arctic and Antarctic. We did that unclassified, with US universities and US supercomputers, and we provided it to scientists and hydrologists and environments to try and better understand the state of the planet so that we can perhaps do something to affect current trends and future projections, and I think you’ll see the Intelligence Community reentering and re-contributing to both of those issues… we as a species need to be more resilient. We’re all suffering now because of the threat of the pandemic, but I think the changes in the climate have reached crisis proportions, and I think that’s why we have an Intelligence Community to protect us from some of those effects.”

[00:53:30] DIRECTOR CARDILLO ON POTENTIALLY SERVING IN THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION: “Yes. I have interest of course, and yes I would serve again. No, I have not been asked, no I’m not being coy with you, I have been supportive of the Vice President, and now the President-Elect since i met him some ten years ago, certainly helped where I could from behind the scenes in the campaign, so that’s not a secret. Now that he’s in some sort of transition, and it’s an odd one to be sure, I’m sure he’s going through his deliberations. I’ll put it this way — I would be offended if for some reason I wasn’t on a list somewhere as a potential option. I would never be offended that I wasn’t selected, because here’s the good news — the talent he has available, is remarkable, and there are many people that are ready to step up for the first time, or step back in for a return engagement. I feel quite good that the country is about to be very well by the team that the President-Elect puts together. I don’t know I’m going to be part of it, if I’m not officially, then I’ll be their biggest cheerleader on the sideline.”

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