The theme was “The Art and Science of Intelligence” and covered national security issues with a focus on the blend of skills and diverse perspectives required to confront emerging intelligence challenges and opportunities.
The conference included a conversation between Robert Cardillo, NGA director, and David Martin, a CBS News correspondent, a keynote speech, three panel discussions and question-and-answer sessions. The audience consisted of undergraduate and graduate students and experienced professionals and scholars with backgrounds and expertise in national security and intelligence.
The day’s conversations gave “insights from distinguished members of the private and public and non-profit sectors regarding some of the foundational issues facing intelligence in the 21st century,” said Billy Jack, Ph.D., Georgetown University vice provost of research.
Partnerships, such as between Georgetown University and NGA, are critical to one of the university’s defining roles – the creation of new knowledge, said Jack.
Cardillo and Martin discussed the director’s early days as a photo analyst, the benefits of commercial imagery, data science, the use of artificial intelligence and the evolution of the mission.
“Everything we do at NGA is about accessing all that we can to employ as much knowledge and expertise to gain the insight that we owe our customer,” Cardillo said.
NGA’s business is to know the Earth and really understand intention, said Cardillo. The only way to do that is for humans to infer future activities of other humans.
“Our ultimate value proposition is advantage,” said Cardillo. “We can’t derive that advantage unless we have intellectually curious, analytically driven, methodically sound analysts who will be enabled and empowered by the proper application of data science and the discovery that a computer-vision tool can do over a gross amount of area.”
Computers can help analyze the millions of images by filtering and detecting change and cueing the human, who is expert, said Cardillo.
The rise of commercial satellites has helped NGA grow and provide more capabilities, said Cardillo.
The new age of artificial intelligence
The first panel, which consisted of experts from government, academia and industry, including NGA’s chief data scientist, Andrew Brooks, Ph.D., focused on the opportunities for intelligence analysis to leverage AI, algorithms and automation to further the national security mission. Panelists discussed how science supports security, the role of machine learning, points of resistance, ethical implications and the relationship between human analysts and machines.
“There are so many opportunities to use AI and all the many different variations of what that is inside national security,” Brooks said. “The challenge and opportunity we have is the volume of data. How can we use technology to help us sift through to find the information of value?”
John Doyon, director of the NCTC’s Office of Data Strategy and Innovation, said his agency, like NGA, is drowning in data.
“The technologies of artificial intelligence and machine learning offer a lot of promise to that challenge,” said Doyon, a Georgetown University alumnus. “We can’t buy enough analysts to be effective and to do our job, so machine learning and artificial intelligence really are mission imperatives.
At NGA, AI can help narrow massive amounts of data so analysts can use their time and energy more efficiently, Brooks said.
Recruiting new employees was also a common theme.
“In my role at NGA, I’ve hired a lot of people this year,” Brooks said. “The key thing I am always most interested in was can [you] ask really impactful questions. Another thing is the attitude and aptitude to learn.”
Employees should come to the agency with an awareness and curiosity about how technology impacts society and the agency, he said. For analysts to leverage AI and machine learning, they’ll need basic programming literacy and the ability to ask really good questions.
Delivering advantage to enable decision makers
The second panel focused on combining the tradecraft, science and humanity of the intelligence profession and only having impact if it enables decision-makers to implement policy and take action. The panelists discussed the kinds of information they find most meaningful, how they determine they have enough information to make a decision, the role of oversight when assessing intelligence and how to shape the workforce of the future.
A new commander’s intent is always welcome, said Justin Poole, NGA’s deputy director. It’s very important for an agency like NGA to have an understanding of what decision-makers are after and what their priorities are.
“So the new National Defense Strategy, with three very clear priorities – lethality, partnerships and improvements in core business … helped us validate the path we are on from an NGA perspective,” Poole said. “It did require us to tweak a few things, but revalidated [NGA’s] direction.”
The strategy helps the agency better support policymakers and decision makers, said Poole.
Decision makers have made some major steps in the last couple of years, said Ellen McCarthy, vice president of Intelligence & Analytics at Noblis and former NGA chief operating officer.
“As I look at the Department of Defense, I think in the next 10 years, we will see some incredible changes,” said McCarthy.
The workforce makes the agency, said Poole.
“I’ve been at NGA for almost 28 years and without a doubt our greatest asset is our people,” said Poole. “I can say that because I know them, I am one of them.”
Former Congresswoman Jane Harman, the Woodrow Wilson Center president, discussed the different perspectives of acting on intelligence.
“It’s great to be at this event that celebrates George Kalaris and celebrates an intelligence agency, NGA, which has always done critically important work,” Harman said.
Congress has a crucial role to play on intelligence regulation and oversight and criticism of the intelligence community has undermined morale and recruiting, said Harman.
“The way we are going to protect America is with solid, good [intelligence],” Harman said. “With good intel, we have a chance for good policy.”
A new intelligence game requires everyone to develop the tools and rules necessary to protect and defend our country, she said. With technology increasing as rapidly as it does, the government still has many of the same problems, but many new and harder challenges.
“We have to have good information so the algorithms that we’re using to keep us safe are the right algorithms,” she said.
The students and young professionals at the conference are the key to future intelligence success, said Harmon. It’s important for them to be involved and make recommendations in the right way, at the right time.
“You’re digital natives, and you really understand and want to be responsible about the new security landscape,” Harmon said. “I just hope that this event and the other things you do in your life will cause you … to step up and contribute what you can.”
The art of alternative thinking
In the third and final panel, panelists explored the thought process behind assessing, analyzing and incorporating new information to illustrate the bigger picture, and help define what supports decision advantage and ensures the unfair fight.
“The importance of imagination, of creativity out of the box, can’t be overstated in intelligence analysis,” said Susan Kalweit, director of NGA’s analysis directorate.
Curiosity, the desire to never give up and writing skills make a good analyst, said Kalweit.
“You could be the best analyst, but if you can’t convey the importance of what you have discovered to those who need to know it, all your great analytic skills are for naught,” she said.