“Intelligence is Weird”: Strategic Innovation in the Community with former Principal Deputy DNI Sue Gordon

Susan M. Gordon - Wikipedia

In this episode of The Burn Bag Podcast, A’ndre and Ryan interview former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon, about her long and distinguished career in the CIA and as a leader in the Intelligence Community, and her perspectives on a range of issues. As PDDNI, Gordon was essentially the second-highest official leading the Intelligence Community,  and she gives us her outlook on the IC’s relationship with the President of the United States — drawing directly from her own experiences in briefing five of our last six presidents. Gordon also discusses her views on innovation in the IC, detailing her role in the establishment of In-Q-Tel and the development of technology in the CIA. We also spoke to Sue about her departure from public service last year, whether she’d return to public service in the future, and her thoughts on diversity in the IC. Lastly, Gordon talks a bit about counterintelligence, and the threats posed in that realm by China and Russia, especially given recent circumstances.


00:10:10 ON In-Q-Tel: “It is a separate 501c3 with an independent board of directors and no government official sits on it or is in its management chain. In the summer of 1998 the CIA was having a really hard time getting access to the technologies that were coming out of Silicon Valley and if you remember that time frame there was really an explosion of new ideas and new digital technologies. Both those companies were not sure they wanted to deal directly with the CIA or the even the military industrial complex, but also our acquisition systems were just not favorable for them. The Director of CIA, George Tenet, went to his Director of Science and Technology, Ruth David, and said, let’s come up with a new approach and they asked this young upstart [Sue Gordon] to figure out a way to do it. In six months, which is remarkable if you want to talk about the culture of the CIA that allowed this to happen. I got the task in July and I knew that three things needed to happen. Number one, we had to get it outside the CIA because if you wanted to beat our own bureaucracy, you had to do it. Two, we had to inspire creation by giving the agency’s toughest problems to this company, in an unclassified form and that was a remarkable revolutionary act in the summer of 1998. The third thing is, we needed to not insist on the government owning the intellectual property. In other words, we wanted things to be invested in so good ideas stayed along and alive long enough to be commercially viable. Then we just wanted to be able to buy it and then use it for our purpose and that was a revolutionary act. Before, we had certainly partnered with the private sector, but they had built things for us and we had owned the things and this was a total shift in terms of how do you get the vibrance. In February of 1999, seven months after we started, a group of amazing citizens incorporated what became In-Q-Tel and it is coming up on 21 years, which is remarkable. There are a number of companies that you know about that are a result of that decision… Google Earth, Palantir, Data Miner, and so many companies that now are part of our innovation diaspora.” 

00:14:46 Briefing the presidents: “There are some really interesting stories and books out there on the history of the President’s Daily Brief in how various presidents have used information. Some wanted it on 3 by 5 cards, some read voraciously, some just want quick hitters, some loved us, and some found us just tolerable. The commonality is that they are all different. The responsibility for being able to have the intelligence that needs to be heard, falls on the intelligence officer. President Trump is like everyone else — different. I think his biggest difference was he didn’t come with a huge foundation in either government bureaucracies, national security or the intelligence community. You walk in and he has a different foundation than others. He was a tactically demanding president compared to some others who were more strategically demanding. I think the most interesting thing was a little bit of the whipsaw between President Obama who was so comfortable for us because he was like us, a reader and a thinker, and he would read his brief. We would only brief when he had questions and we love that because we love sharing everything we know. President Trump was a little bit more of a just the facts kind of guy. And getting used to providing intelligence for someone who wanted to take actions at a great rate rather than someone who wanted to know a lot of was pretty whipsaw.”

00:17:13 ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PRESIDENTS AND THE INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY: “Intelligence officers know that there’s a fundamental uncertainty to intelligence, and what you’re trying to do is structure it in a way so that the information is useful without making it to seem more or less than it is. Every intelligence officer knows that we are massively inconvenient to policymakers and presidents, because we typically walk in the room and say something that is just unfortunate or depressing or steals their decision space, so I think you know that. When a president questions your assessment, there’s really not a problem with that because you walk through and show exactly the basis for your assessment. You show the data that you use and you show the rigor that you put up against it. I don’t know that people understand that there is such a craft to intelligence. It isn’t people with just an opinion, there is actually a structure by which we make those assessments, and so you lay that out. You show the data you have. In fact sometimes within the intelligence community there are differences in the conclusion, and so the idea that a president might disagree with the judgment is not unusual. You try and work that out so they understand the limits of the intelligence. But remember intelligence is an input to the policy, intelligence doesn’t dictate policy. It’s not unusual to have intelligence questions. I think with this President, the thing that was unusual is that he questioned periodically more than the intelligence, he questioned the organizations that produced the intelligence and their integrity.  I think that was difficult for us, but it was not difficult to deal with the president who questioned our intelligence, so that that’s a common occurrence.”

00:20:23 ON THE LEARNING CURVE FOR DIRECTORS DEPENDING ON THEIR BACKGROUND: “Depending on the individual, there’s a learning curve, but I think that a Director of the CIA or the Director of National Intelligence really needs two fundamental things. One, they need the trust of the president. The relationship with the president is important because intelligence is weird, it’s a bit arcane. You need someone who can talk to the president about it and explain the day that you only have one piece of data, but you should listen to it, versus the day where there is lots of data, but we don’t believe it. And if you don’t have that relationship to sit as a part of their team, you’re going to have a hard time. The second thing that they need to have is an appreciation for the craft, so that they’re not just trying to create an answer, but actually being true to the discipline because it’s that discipline that allows you to deal with the information… When you have a director who knows the community inside and out, Jim Clapper, John Brennan, Gina Haspel and Mike Hayden, those are wonderful. There have been directors that have been incredibly impactful because of the two things I mentioned…. I remember when he [Leon Panetta] was named. Everyone is like what? But I think he will go down as one of the really good directors of the CIA, both for the agency and for the nation. He immediately understood who we were and relied on his women and men to help support what he needed to do, but he was able to connect with the President so that our work really sang. I would also have to say that that my boss Dan Coats was not steeped in intelligence, but he came in as the DNI. His relationship with the President was one thing, but he had a brilliant relationship with the Congress and he knew how to play intelligence straight down the middle even when he was under pressure from that President who was willing to cite this agreement. I think you can have political appointees, as long as they have a relationship, and as long as they understand the responsibility of the craft.”

00:23:38 ON the day in the life of Sue Gordon as the principle Deputy Director of National Intelligence: “I think I had five jobs. One was to be the second to Dan Coats, so second as principle advisor to the President on intelligence, so understanding the intersection of intelligence and policy and being able to represent the work of the community in those meetings. The second was to be essentially the Chief Operating Officer of the intelligence community, that’s 17 agencies, approaching 100,000 people, and a budget of over $60 billion. Trying to make this loose confederation of independent organizations act as one, and that’s really the Principle Deputy’s job and the tool that you have is the budget that comes from the DNI. The third job, I’d say, was to do all the technical stuff. There is a lot, whether it is the information technology infrastructure of the entire agency community, or the requirements for new collection systems, just the kind of bits from a technical perspective. The fourth job was to basically run the ODNI, so that’s an independent organization, it’s about 1700 people of whom half are in the National Counterintelligence Center. But it’s it’s an organization with humans and jobs, so someone’s going to be the day-to-day operator, and that’s the Principal Deputy. And then the fifth job is to lead the advance of mission whether through innovation or through partnership with the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security or the FBI, so leading the advance toward the next generation.”

00:29:46 MODERN ERA OF COUNTER INTELLIGENCE: “What is really interesting about the modern era is now our academic institutions, our companies, and even the populace are now targets of adversaries and competitor’s efforts to either shape them, take their information, or get them in positions of influence. You’ve seen over the last five years… a real effort to take what we know about our adversaries and give some counterintelligence craft to the private sector. A lot of education over the last few years, a lot of investment in not only cybersecurity, but personnel security, telling stories about how penetrations happen for exactly the reason you say that it was easy for us because that was part of our ethos and we still had to be vigilant. But now we need to give that wisdom and vigilance to the private sector, to the populace, and that’s where you see a lot of activity now.”

00:31:51 ON how real is the threat of infiltration from China and Russia or other geopolitical adversaries: “Competitors and adversaries, particularly those longstanding ones, particularly the big powerful ones like Russia and China, but also Iran, North Korea have interests, whether the interest they are advancing for themselves or interests of countering our advance, they’re going to try and effect. One of the reasons why the intelligence community talks so much about Russia is because of how sophisticated they are, how long they’ve been doing it, and how fundamental their doctrine is about undermining democracy and they are very good at it. They are very good from a human perspective. They’re very good from a technical perspective, and so they’re always trying to seek advantage or to effect influence. The challenging thing about this is you don’t even have to be complicit in order to be useful, if you’re not aware that this is happening to you. China is a little bit different from Russia. There is a saying that says, “Quantity has its own quality.” They are big, they’re aggressive, and they are so invested in economic advance right now that you see certainly the spying work going on. But you’re also seeing them trying to influence policy and people who are policy makers to try and get favorable policies and so it is real. It is about their interests and they have an advantage here because we are an open society. We move around, no one is surveying our citizens to see if they’re talking to the right person. We don’t try and govern that. That’s a pretty good operating environment, which is why I think you’re seeing the intelligence community trying to be so aggressive about talking about this threat. Not in a xenophobic way, but so that people can imagine it is happening and prepare themselves in situations like why is this person asking me about that? Because ultimately the protection is in the awareness that the person or the system has that they are under assault.”

00:37:44 ON IRAN: “So I think the the first thing is… They are sovereign nation with their own interests. You have to understand that. And then you have to draw a line in terms of what you think are activities that are either bullying or proxy forces trying to influence the region. Destructive building their nuclear program and you’re trying to shape behaviors to fit within what you think are the norms of global interaction, but they are a sovereign nation. They have their own interests. I think what has been so hard for the US is that they are a power. They are well supported by allies from Russia and others in the region. Though we have tried to put pressure on them economically, and I think to some good effect, the truth is that they have been unwilling to relinquish what they deem is their authority for what we deem is acceptable behavior. I think history will show that when we are putting pressure on them, we curb some of their worst behaviors. I think the challenges… I’m not sure that we have given them an avenue to maintain their sovereign interests and join the community on a more moderate way. I think we’ve done a decent job containing. I think there’s still work to be done to create a pathway for them to rejoin on terms that they will find acceptable.”

00:43:56 Would Gordon serve in the Biden administration?: “I have a burning passion for America, for intelligence, and national security. I don’t think I would ever turn down service if I were asked to serve, but I also I’m finding in this life that I’m having a little bit of an impact and… I think that I’ve got a decent voice on the intersection of technology and national security. While I’m not in the government at this point, even though I would return in fast, I think I’m still trying to be a representative of that mission space.”  

00:45:17  The Culture of the Intelligence Community: “The real answer is the people I’ve met from 1980 and onward are just some of the most amazing patriots, the most amazing talent focused on doing their job. I think there’s something about working everyday with people who have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States, and they believe it, and they act that way. I think one of the things that has been so difficult over the past couple of years is the suggestion that the system as a whole has an agenda other than doing its best work to support and defend the Constitution in the United States. There is something remarkable about working with people who are that devoted. In the intelligence community, it is not just devotion, it is straight up talent in part because I always said, mission attracts talent and what we do is not only important, but it’s difficult. Edwin Land, who was one of the great forefathers of the Polaroid camera… he has a quote that says, “Never take on a problem unless it’s manifestly important and nearly impossible.” And that’s what intelligence is, it is manifestly important, and if you think about what you’re trying to do, there’s a near impossibility, and that tends to attract a set of people who are purposeful and driven and they give me hope. 

When I left a little more than a year ago, one of the things I tried to convey to the community was don’t worry that I’m leaving because you’re here. And you have always been the strength and they have always been the reason that we could take risks, because fundamentally the leadership knows that no matter how far we reach, they will never let us fail. And there’s something remarkable about that. I think if the average citizen met an intelligence officer. You know what they said? They’d say, “Oh my gosh, they’re just like me. They want the same things I do, they believe the same things I do.” Despite the difficulty, despite the amount of transformation that I think the intelligence community needs to do, despite the uncertain vibration that the nation and the world is in right now. I am hopeful in fact, because of the number of people that I see that are determined that we find a way forward and that they will provide the clarity, wisdom, and insight that allow good decision making.”

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