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Cliff Diving: The National Intelligence Fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations

 June 8, 2015

 Deborah McDonald

One of my favorite magnets reads, “Life begins outside your comfort zone.” I like to tweak it for work: True growth begins outside your comfort zone. My friends have termed my apparent love of leaping into the unknown at work as “career cliff diving,” which explains in part why I could not resist applying for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence National Intelligence Fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations. While one of the preeminent foreign policy think tanks may at first appear quite different from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s mission, I can assure you there are more similarities than differences.

The most common denominator, which first drew me to CFR, was its commitment to objectivity. CFR is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank and publisher of Foreign Affairs magazine. Its mission — to inform the public debate on foreign affairs — parallels NGA and the intelligence community’s driving mission to objectively inform the same policymakers and military leaders, albeit through classified channels.

CFR, headquartered in New York City, was formed in 1921, following the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, “to afford a continuous conference on international questions affecting the United States, by bringing together experts on statecraft, finance, industry, education and science.” Its membership of 4,900 reads as a “Who’s Who” in the international arena.

The rigorous NGA and intelligence community fellowship application process that began in fall 2013 concluded with my appointment for the 2014 academic year. My duties include a mix of liaison and representative functions, facilitating greater communication between the IC, CFR and, where appropriate, the public. In addition, the fellowship is considered a development opportunity. Development takes many forms, from working on an approved study, attending educational meetings, as well as interacting with CFR members and staff who are experts in their respective fields. As an IC representative, I am called on to provide my perspective based on my expertise. The greatest adjustment for me as an intelligence officer is the CFR’s operation in the public space, which while challenging, is also the most rewarding.

I greatly enjoy interacting with CFR members because as an IC member, it’s a rare opportunity for me to hear about concerns directly from the public we serve. In addition, the members’ insights provide an added dimension and depth to my previous IC worldview. I believe we all share one of CFR’s founding principles — a desire to “help America … find its place in the world.”

My time at CFR was a continuation of this very unexpected journey that began when I joined NGA’s legacy organization, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. I believe I will feel the effects of my fellowship for many years to come. I won’t forget the interest and excitement I encounter when meeting fellow geospatial and intelligence kindred spirits.

I can only hope I’ve left a few soft ripples behind in the fellowship waters.

Deborah McDonald is the 2014 CFR Fellow. She will return to NGA at the conclusion of her New York-based fellowship. After a year of introductions, she can now say National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in one rapid breath.