Transparency and Intelligence

An Interview with Letitia A. Long, Retired Director, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.


An Interview with Letitia A. Long

Retired Director, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

Letitia “Tish” Long is the first woman to head a major American intelligence agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. She began her career in 1982, after receiving an engineering degree from Virginia Tech. Her first job after school was as an engineer working for the Navy.

N.G.A. operates as both an intelligence service and a combat support agency, and its customers include war fighters, policy makers, intelligence professionals and first responders—both domestic and international. The group gathers information for mapping, locating and targeting locations for each of these obligations. For example, it was involved in rescue operations during the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines, and before that, in 2012, it was involved in the emergency response to Hurricane Sandy, which affected the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Floods, fires, earthquakes, storms and wartime activities are all within N.G.A.’s purview. The agency even launched a publicly available Web site, the first of its kind for an intelligence agency, to provide unclassified and shareable geospatial intelligence for the international response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa. On the military side, N.G.A. contributed location information to Operation Neptune’s Spear—the military operation in which Osama bin Laden was killed.

Under Tish Long’s leadership, N.G.A. entered a new era of transparency. It opened up and made accessible a great deal of its imaging, information, software and analytical capabilities to non-governmental and friendly foreign governmental institutions for use. One of Long’s initiatives is called the “Map of the World” platform. The platform links imagery, mapping, computer modeling and geospatial location surveying together to create a detailed atlas of the world that can locate areas with civilian and military applications for analysts. The Map of the World is akin to Google Maps on steroids.

Long spent more than 35 years working for the federal government. In 2010 she was appointed director of the N.G.A. by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. She retired from federal service in October 2014.

Immediately before she joined N.G.A. as its director, Long was deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, working under Lt. Gens. Mike Maples and Ron Burgess. Before that she was deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence. Even after 35 years in government service, it’s clear that Long has not lost her passion for federal service and for helping plot the future of the U.S. intelligence agencies.

Q: When you walked into your office at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, N.G.A., did you have a plan for changing it?

A: In 2010, when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates offered me the opportunity, I was honored. But he did not give me a mandate for change. Neither did Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. They basically said, “You know what to do, go do it.” So, I came to the agency with that point of view. That said, I wanted to ensure that N.G.A. was postured for the future.

Q: How did you set your agenda?

A: In the past, I had been a customer for the kind of information the agency produces and collects, and I was getting a very good product and good support from N.G.A. So, I knew the organization from that perspective.

Q: Did you also know how the organization functioned internally?

A: To a certain extent, yes. I was the deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, which meant we worked very closely with N.G.A. It was a great working relationship. As a result, I knew the agency was functioning well. I will say, we are a very young agency, and each director put their imprint on N.G.A. The first director, Jack Dantone, put it together. He established it. The second integrated it; that was Jim King. Jim Clapper was the third director and brought the two disciplines of imagery analysis and mapping together to form GEOINT, or geospatial intelligence. It was my immediate predecessor, Adm. Bob Murrett, who became director in 2006, who put the agency on a wartime footing.

Q: What was the first thing you did when you walked in the door?

A: I spent the first 90 days talking to as many people as I could—employees from around the world and customers from the community. I also talked to the first-responder community.

Q: You say “national security.” How do you define the national security community?

A: I define it as policy makers, war fighters and first responders. What I heard consistently from talking to these people, employees and customers alike, were three things: “You—meaning N.G.A.—are really good. We love N.G.A. But can you please make it easier for us to get your information?”

They told me they wanted more of our information. They also said they valued our analytical assessments, our ability to get to the right issues, our analysis and the way we deliver and portray our information. But I also heard that it was difficult to find data; even our own people said that is a problem.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: It’s a problem because we are in the midst of what I call the “geospatial revolution,” where imagery from space is becoming ubiquitous and available to nearly everyone for many uses, not only for national security purposes. It’s also a problem because our vision has been to put the power of GEOINT into the hands of our users to provide them with online, on-demand access to our information to make it easier to get at our information and to deepen our overall analytic expertise. We do these things to create new sources of value for our customers and to be prepared for a crisis.

Q: It sounds like you are rethinking your strategy—something commercial companies do all the time but government agencies do rarely. How are you approaching this shift in strategy?

A: We are like a large corporation. We have customers, and we have a bottom line—although we call it our top-line budget. Our budget is decreasing, and we have to get everybody onboard with that. The fact is, we could not continue to do what we were doing in a brute-force way. We are unique in the intelligence community because we have commercial competition. For some needs, for example, Google Maps might be good enough.

So the first challenge was to change the organizational culture so everyone knows we needed to change. That was difficult when all of our customers—the four-stars (generals, admirals and so forth) and the Cabinet secretaries—are all saying, “We love you, give us more.” But at the same time, employees are saying, “Why do we have to change when everybody says we’re really good at what we do?”

Of course, we’re really good today, but we have to position ourselves for the future. We have to take advantage of—but not compete with—industry. We need to leverage what they’re doing so we invest in the value added. We need to add it to our value proposition, which is our deep analytic expertise, our deep understanding of target sets, which commercial industry doesn’t necessarily have.

Q: How do you get the employees onboard?

A: We put out a call for ideas. What should our online presence look like 10 years from now, for example? I was going to be happy if we got 10 teams to participate. It was all self-organizing. Our employees and industry partners could participate, as well as our allies—Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom—they all have a presence here. We had over 20 self-organized teams and over 500 folks involved. One of the teams was led by a person who had been here for three months, another team was led by somebody who had been here more than 30 years. Some of the teams were virtual—they never met in person until they came together to pitch their idea.

Q: In an organization like this, are you able to celebrate the winners and publicize it, or do you have to keep it under wraps?

A: We publicized it—we publicized the contest, we publicized the teams and their ideas, we used publications like our own internal magazine, The Pathfinder, and we highlighted appropriately online. There ended up being two winning teams and an honorary mention. We are still using some of those ideas from the contest we held almost four years ago now.

Q: The boundary lines between government agencies and business have shifted over the last 20 years. How has N.G.A. adapted to those changes, attempting to be as transparent as possible?

A: First of all, N.G.A., as we so often are doing, is leading the way. It’s a little easier for us, and I’ll tell you why. It’s a little easier for us because part of our mission is unclassified, so our support to first responders, the whole humanitarian assistance part of our mission, as well as our disaster recovery mission, are unclassified. In the past, we would work with FEMA—the Federal Emergency Management Agency—or the Coast Guard or the Secret Service, and when we provided a product our seal would not be on it. We would never acknowledge that some part of the work came from us.

But that’s different now. We put our seal on all our products now, because it’s important for the American public to know that their taxpayer dollars, and the amazing intelligence capabilities that they have been investing in to secure the nation, can also be used to protect them in the event of a hurricane, or a tornado, or a wildfire or an earthquake. We don’t take pictures over the United States unless we are asked to, and then only for a specific event. We have very strict laws and policy guidelines on how we do that and how we report it. So again, from a transparency perspective, we can talk about what we do, not how we do it, which is what we don’t want our adversaries to know.

Q: How does that work in practice?

A: For unclassified missions we use commercial satellites; the resolution is not as good as our government-built satellites, so you cannot discern as much detail from the imagery. If you want to know the damage from an earthquake or the damage from a hurricane, you can see that with pretty coarse-resolution imagery. So that’s really the difference.

Q: You have a Twitter presence, and you use social media. That’s not how intelligence agencies used to function. Why have you embraced it?

A: When I arrived, we had a Facebook page. I don’t believe we had a Twitter presence. Since then, both of those tools have taken off. The fact is, every day we’re hiring into the work force, which means we’re hiring folks who are used to this technology, who are used to the apps and this way of staying connected. So, it’s natural that we introduce it into the workplace. These are tools we can take advantage of. It’s another way to explain to the American public who we are and what we do. It’s a way to integrate us into the community.

Q: And it’s a way to connect with talent, especially young talent?

A: Absolutely! We hold a lot of virtual career fairs now. We do online interviews, so that is just a normal part of how we do business. We do have to be mindful that foreign intelligence services are looking at those Web sites and at our online presence, also. We also talk to our new employees about operational security and to think about how much they want to put on their personal profiles. On the upside, social media is another tool, and we have to take advantage of all of the tools out there. Members of foreign intelligence services are people, also; they’re also posting things, and from our perspective it’s the pictures and videos that can be very helpful in our business, that can tip us to activity we may not have seen otherwise.

Q:  Does your mandate include following the “Internet of Things,” or is it exclusively about space and visual mapping and the way we traditionally think of imagery?

A: It’s the Internet of Things from the standpoint of tying it to a physical place in the world, so N.S.A. is going to map the Internet and CYBERCOM [Army Cyber Command] is going to map cyberspace from the defensive position, but you want to know where it actually is. You don’t want to know that it’s a server somewhere in cyberspace or a router somewhere in cyberspace. Who does it really belong to and where is it, physically? That’s where N.G.A. comes in. We like to say our job is to put the bricks and mortar into the bits and bytes, because at the end of the day you need to know where things are, how they’re physically connected, who they belong to, who’s directing them. And, if you want to take it to the very top, you also want to understand the leaderships’ intentions.

Q: Looking ahead, what’s your vision over the next 10 years or so?

A: From a GEOINT perspective, and also from the broader intelligence community and our everyday lives, I see us living within the data, what we refer to as immersion. So if you look at intelligence on a continuum, we coordinated with one another, then we collaborated with one another, and right now we’re really focused on being integrated. I see the next phase as immersive.

Q: And what does that mean, exactly?

A: We talk about 3-D, and we’ve talked about 4-D for a long time because we have to add the time dimension—how things change over time. But I’m talking 5-D, where you’re immersed in the data. You’re a part of it. Think of gaming. With 3-D glasses you immerse yourself in the game, you create avatars. We do some of that today, and we’ve done some of it for a while. That’s how we’ve been helping pilots and Special Forces teams be ready for their missions, to give them that virtual fly-through. Now imagine our analysts in that same environment, where they are pulling different pieces of data together—GEOINT [geospatial intelligence], SIGINT [signals intelligence], HUMINT [human intelligence], MASINT [measurement and signature intelligence], open-source information—to pull together all information about an object and structure all of the data around an object. An object can be a person, a place, a thing or an activity—we are working to be able to gather everything that is associated with that particular object, to be able to tell the whole story.

Q: So it’s like when you’re in grade school, you have maps and then, later, you have relief maps, which have mountains on them and you can actually feel the texture and you get more details?

A: Yes. And in our case, it’s like walking on the relief map and seeing how the terrain changes, the population changes, seeing what structures are built over time. If there is a military base, what’s associated with it, what equipment is there, what’s the activity associated with it, what’s the command and control, who’s the commander, where were they yesterday, how are they linked to all of the other commanders? If it’s a terrorist training site, who’s training there, how long have they been there, what are they training for? So all of us within the intelligence community are looking at these things—we need to ensure that we’re bringing all of that information together in real time, virtually, to enable decisions and actions to be made and to enable customer success.

Q: Is the information you are referring to classified or a mix of classified and unclassified?

A: We can make available some of that information in the unclassified realm, and people will add to it in ways we never thought about. We have some of our disaster recovery software out on an open social-networking site where software developers work. It’s called GitHub, and we were the first intelligence agency to put our software out there on its network. Local communities are downloading and adding to it to run their towns and their cities. I met with the mayor of Huntsville, Ala., about a month ago. We have a very strong partnership with them. He wants a smart city, where he knows where the potholes are, where the trash trucks are, where he needs to have more patrol cars, and he’s using our software as his baseline to do that. Why not? It is already developed, and we give it to him at no cost. That’s just one example. If you go way back in time, some of our early radar work analysis was the formation for mammographies, so I’m sure there are other examples of taking what we develop here and adapting it for other uses.

Q: Are you saying that by opening up your information and software tools, users will make your products better and more useful?

A: Yes. But keep in mind, we always have to make sure the software hasn’t been altered and that we fully understand the source code. By making our data accessible, I have presented a challenge to the rest of the intelligence community and to the Department of Defense to make their data available to us and to others.

You may have heard “every soldier is a sensor.” A solider on the battlefield has a camera and takes a picture; that’s great situational awareness. That’s better than we may have because it’s in the moment. How do I get that data back here immediately, take advantage of it, and then serve it back out to the entire network? And how do I know that it was our soldier who took the pictures? That means we have to ensure we have data integrity if we’re going to use it to make our analytic assessments and then to serve it back out to others.

Q: What are some of the things you worry about, in terms of big gaps to plug?

A: The first thing that I worry about is what we don’t know. We cannot see the entire earth all the time, nor do I think we will ever invest in the capability to be able to do so. So I worry about what we don’t know. Then, I’m very worried about the rise of terrorism—what’s going on right now in Syria and Iraq. Many folks thought the Arab Spring was going to be spring. Well, it’s been spring, but it’s also been summer, fall, winter and so on. I also worry about our ability to anticipate where the next disaster, catastrophe or crisis is going to strike and about our readiness for that. At the end of the day, I worry about the speed, impact and number of things happening to our people from so many things happening at once. We call that the OPTEMPO, or operations tempo. It doesn’t take long to run out of fingers and toes if you’re counting all the crises that are happening and that we monitor on a daily basis. We’re watching the rest of the world and trying to anticipate where that next hot spot is going to be. It’s not a complete exaggeration to say it’s usually in a place a lot of people have never heard of. So, I worry that the “new normal” is a constant state of crisis, and I worry how that impacts our folks and their ability to keep up without getting burned out. That said, the intelligence community is made up of smart, resilient employees who are dedicated to doing their part to keep our country safe. It has been an absolute privilege for me to be a part of it.  

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