In-Focus Podcast

Building the Base episode 11: The Honorable Sue Gordon, Former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence

Sue Gordon - National Security Advisor

Sue is currently the Director at CACI International which provides the unique expertise and distinctive technology that address customers’ greatest enterprise and mission challenges.

She was the fifth Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) from August 2017 to August 2019. As PDDNI, Sue was a key advisor to the President and National Security Council and led the 17-member Intelligence Community. With more than three decades of experience in the IC, Sue has served in a variety of leadership roles spanning numerous intelligence organizations and disciplines. Prior to the DNI, Sue served as the Deputy Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency from 2015 to 2017, helping the director lead the agency and manage the National System of Geospatial Intelligence.

Before joining the NGA, she served for 27 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rising to senior executive positions in each of the Agency’s four directorates: operations, analysis, science and technology, and support. In 1998, she designed and drove the formation of In-Q-Tel, a private, non-profit company whose primary purpose is to deliver innovative technology solutions for the agency and the IC. She is the recipient of numerous government and industry awards, including the Distinguished Intelligence Medal and the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award. Sue earned a Bachelor of Science from Duke University. A trusted authority on strategy, innovation and leadership, Sue is currently a consultant on global risk, technology, cyber and space issues and a member of the Board at Pallas Advisors, a Washington D.C.-based consultancy.

Podcast Transcript

Hondo:
What sent you on your journey

Sue:
I love origin stories, it is always so much more unusual than some straight line plan. Couldn’t decide between PHD and Law School. Her dad was a career naval officer who knew Stan Turner (CIA). She applied when they came to campus. Hired as an analyst to do soviet biological warfare, the job wasn’t there the day she arrived and she became a soviet weapons analyst. An arc of doing what needed to be done. Somewhere along the way I became the person you hired if you needed something done. Weapons, space, information technology, operations, cyber ops, etc. The match between Sue and CIA/IC was like peas and carrots. It was a playground for people with insatiable curiosity like me.

Lauren:
Open letter on acquisitions, “Our enemies do not pause to accommodate inefficient processes”

Sue:
This was 2015, we were wrestling with the problem which we had been for a decade before. How can we acquire what we need in the timeframe we have with requirements that we need. I didn’t know why we weren’t being aggressive. I decided to give everyone permission to use whatever tools they needed. I had hoped that everyone would carry around this letter in their pocket to whip out if needed. She was dep director. I think it was well received by people who felt flummoxed, I hit on the procedural things though missed a couple things which are much more difficult.

Hondo:
Age old question, is it procedural, cultural, or mindset barrier. The DOD has been struggling with this for the last ten years, what do you think is holding back folks. It was always surprising that I would give permission and they would not take it.
Workforce issues, wimps

Sue:
One of the problems with entrenched bureaucracies, policies are designed to keep bad things from happening, and none of them are designed to let good things happen. Particularly in a world where things are software and digital. The winner is going to be the one who can get things in place fastest. The leaders of acquisition thinks that there job is to keep the system running, they do not believe they are empowered to reimagine their jobs. Story about her security boss. Processes are run by humans, humans have leaders. Third thing, what the current crop of decision making leaders. Hondo you and I were powerful but not decision making leaders. I think they have gotten smaller in what they believe their power is. That is just an effect of the missions exploding the world turning faster and leaders who had the wisdom to be able to create an umbrella of opportunity.

Lauren:
It is amazing that the letter was in 2015, especially on the three years letter. Pendulum shift on tech collaboration.

Sue:
I always think there is room for improvement, but I think we are on a good trajectory. For the longest time we all thought we were in a period of peace and abundance. The last few years has given us that urgency. I think the private sector is aware of that, sure they have financial motivations but they are participants of the society and the great world order. The growing realization that there aren’t bad people on either side of the public/private divide is important, just speaking different languages. I think it is getting better. I think the fact that it is a different economic environment than it was, the government realizes that it needs to make an investment earlier. Need drives opportunity.

Hondo:
Comfortable being uncomfortable. We still have a bit of an industrial mindset in how we acquire tools, you did a lot of great work when you were at NGA on creating a team of teams. What does FIN look like?

Sue:
Yes! I’ll start with the government, I think the government has the most power and responsibility to come forward and make things happen. First, it needs to continue to invest in a modern technology stack, the way we used to build things is not. We cannot just build the networks, but the environment which is secure and resilient in a way which is reflective of the world we live. It must think of security, loss, risk to build the environment which is safe and high preforming. There are a lot of very wonderful leaders pressing on this issue. Second, the government must understand that there is so much good wisdom in the private sector about how we can satisfy our requirements. Quit specifying the requirements. At NGA we specified outcomes and worked with partners in industry. From the industry side quit throwing crap over without specified outcomes and leaving it to the government to figure it out. The government is slow and fair so don’t saddle the system with aimless tech.

Hondo:
Do you think NGA was able to make that transformation?

Sue:
When we write the history about how amazingly successful this transformation has been, NGA will hold a special place. Robert Cardillos succeed with the open. The NGA took their mission and imagined it in the future, not just modernizing the mission they had. Now you see Ukraine, if you look at what they use to reflect their mission, it is these amazing commercial sats, comms, and data in combination with partnership with U.S. and allied governments.

Lauren:
From a private sector perspective, NGA is one of the best at sharing data. Shifting gears, there is a lot of conversation today about how we shore up international partnerships, supply chains, etc.

Sue:
When you want to protect critical technologies, we have historically thought of protection as holding. That was a good way to think about it when we had the advantage of being the only ones with capability. In this moment, we have to participate with more than the stuff you have by yourself. You have to be the place people want to come to to work, partners with shared values. I think on a straight technology perspective, you have to have a consortium.

Hondo:
Open source/commercial was often thrown away compared to exquisite. How have you sensed the IC work through that transformation, operationalizing the open data.

Sue:
I think it is coming along but it is a big shift. We were so far ahead in using exquisite systems against great closed societies. Going against terrorism it changed to finding information that people and networks hold. The mission hasn’t changed a lick, it just isn’t 1947. Open data is just data, all the data we have ever collected has required assessment of its validity. AI must be an investment. I think they are on that path, but historically that is a big shift. There has to be a discipline developed around the assessment of the open source.

Lauren:
“People are a magic wand” What do you think about talent.

Sue:
There is massive talent available, we wouldn’t get jobs
Hondo. There is tons of talent, tons of passion. The generations coming forward are generations who want purpose. We need to really work to get out there and talk about this mission. Organizations need to do a couple things. One, we have to create the enviroment to let new talent succeed rather than how they must behave. How do I create an enviroment which will allow this generation to be as broad and expansive as we were. We have to find a way to make people move in and out. Carry your clearance on your back. If we could do that, the challenges at this moment are so immense. If I were talking to people coming up, STEM is so important, though once you have the tech you need the critical thinking.

Hondo:
You stepped away for a while, took care of family, and came back and succeeded. Tell me a bit about that?

Sue:
I has a good run for 19 years where I could make it work with my husband. Then it became obvious to me that I couldn’t be as great of an intel officer and mom as I wanted. I gave two weeks notice and left, it was an easy decision because I knew what was important. But it was daunting because I was giving up what I love. I feared I could not be the badass I thought I was. It worked as well as it did because I made the choice and I knew the consequences. Spent 8 years, deployed my children on their lives, was in late 40s and went back to CIA and asked if they were hiring. It sounds like it was nothing but because I was good at my job, asked to keep the seat warm. I came back at a lower grade but had the chance to embark on an entirely different set of jorunies. I was IT/Space/Weapons, came back as Ops and Support. If anyone faces a crossroads, don’t be afraid, make your choice, understand there will be consequences. I learned that I had been pretty smug at who the cool kids were. I didn’t really work, and learned that the engine of society were not the people who worked 9-5, but those in schools, etc. I came back a much better leaders, saw so much more potential in so many people.

Lauren:
It is not that you stepped out and took a pause, but you learned so much. This month marks three years in private.

Sue:
Three surprises, doing nat security work is really good stuff. It is great work, maddening work, and I miss it. All the sound bytes, it is great work. Second, in the private sector there is so much patriotism. Patriotism not in the small sense, but in the “do good things, democracy” sense. People/companies want to help. You can fall into the trap of thinking that each side is greedy, narrow, etc. Third, Private sector does not fully understand how hard the job of government is. And the responsibility. Im not sure the government realizes how many of our problem have already been solved in the private sector. Big lesson: If we could each see the other more clearly, we could start breaking down the barriers.

Hondo:
Mentorship

Sue:
I was lucky or well designed to hear wisdom and to get direct feedback which turned out ot be mentoring all along. I owe everything to those people who took a minute to tell me how they saw it. Every problem you take to the mentor, you still own. You can’t get them to do it. Stephanie O’Sullivan was my fav mentor. I lucked into her preceding me as Principal deputy, and she is so different than me, but so smart. I continue to go to her. I don’t always take her advice, but I am always better for hearing it.

Sue:
Only thing I would say, now is a very interesting moment. I have been a serial revolutionary throughout my career, moments are the most important part of making something happen. If you don’t have a moment live to fight another day. The world has sufficiently changed, stop being stymied by what isn’t and use what is. Regardless of if you are a company or a citizen

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