The second day of the 2021 Intelligence and National Security Summit cohosted by AFCEA International and INSA continued to lay out the themes, priorities, and drivers in the Intelligence Community (IC). Several intelligence agencies laid out their key priorities, including counterterrorism and Afghanistan, the threat of China, and the continued quest to attract and retain talent.
Key IC Priorities And getting Top Talent
In a panel discussion that kicked off day two of the Summit, each agency representative provided the most pressing needs in their organizations. Everyone zeroed in on the impact of attracting and retaining its workforce.
FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate pointed out that counterterrorism is the FBI’s number one priority. In order to keep Americans safe, this threat remains at the top. He also mentioned the importance of cybersecurity, because it is a component of almost every threat in today’s world.
Abbate emphasized that many IC agencies have a cultural cool factor that has helped to keep new applicants coming. While new talent may still think it’s cool to tell their friends that they work for the FBI, he emphasized the agency isn’t just looking for talent who finds the job cool, but connecting across the diverse communities they serve to find the right people for the mission.
Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier echoed Haines’ remarks, emphasizing the impact of China on the agency priorities and focus. And in order to compete with China, the DIA needs people. Berrier also pointed out the importance of technology – areas like machine learning and artificial intelligence and other emerging capabilities need to be a key skillset for the DIA. Additionally, access and partnerships made it to Berrier’s short list of priorities. Getting access to hard places and deep partnerships are crucial to staying ahead of threats.
Berrier noted the DIA challenge to retain federal talent at the GS 12-14 level. He explained that the DIA is looking to understand the retention issue at a higher level. DIA is connecting with staff early, offering more training, and getting employees connected to the agency. Buy-in to the mission is a key component for recruiting, but it’s also a game changer for retention, said Berrier.
Associate Director of Operations for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Major General Charles Cleveland highlighted the transition that the NGA has of re-investing talent that was previously focused on counterterrorism, and instead aligning them with China efforts. Cleveland noted that it has been a balancing act, especially with the Afghanistan troop removal and terrorist response.
Cleveland also pointed out that for 20 years, the IC has sustained a sense of urgency with their focus on terrorism, but as we combat the rise of China, it’s important to grow cultural literacy. Like the other IC agencies, candidates seek NGA for the unique mission, said Cleveland. University recruitment has been a key part of their effort to attract the next generation, he said.
Deputy CIA Director David Cohen said the current agency priorities are technology, partnerships, and people. Disruptive technology like biotechnology or AI and using technology proactively are focus areas, he said.
Cohen quipped that part of the problem in the IC is that everyone is competing for the same talent. The CIA is actively recruiting – especially analysts able to be placed in different locations around the world; however, ensuring that adversarial nations are not pushing their own candidates in the CIA door is always on the forefront of everyone’s minds, said Cohen. Accelerating the CIA hiring process is a top priority in solving the talent problem for the agency – which doesn’t struggle to attract talent, but can struggle to retain them through a lengthy hiring and security clearance process. Cohen acknowledged that a one to two year onboarding process is unsustainable, and technology is key to improving hiring timelines.
National Security Agency (NSA) Director Gen. Paul Nakasone identified cybersecurity as a critical focus area. He said, “Cybersecurity is a new strategic environment of competition.” He also highlighted the need for collaboration both within and outside the IC.
The challenge in government is that when talent leaves, they’re not always motivated to come back. General Nakasone advocated for making a mindset shift when it comes to how we work with talent. He would like to see mission driven hiring to solve a problem, and then allowing talent to launch outside the NSA to other efforts. However, it’s advantageous for agencies to keep communication lines open in order to bring talent back for future stints within the government. Making it easy for talent to come and go could be a game changer for federal hiring. Nakasone also highlighted the NSA’s unclassified center, where they are able to engage with partners and have conversations that can lead to new talent.
National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) Director Dr. Christopher Scolese said that the NRO’s priority is innovation. He shared that technology is key in harder to access areas. Partnerships with the NRO – both traditional and nontraditional – are necessary in order to work. Products and capabilities from industry are helping to reduce cost and increase capabilities, Scolese said. He highlighted that the U.S. Space Force and Command are critical partners in navigating the congested area of space, so collaborating with one another is a key piece to success.
When it comes to attracting talent, Scolese acknowledged that he has a bit of an upper-hand. Host some launches, and people get interested in working for you. He’s right when he said, “Exciting work attracts a workforce.” Scolese also pointed out how internships have brought many in the door.
Gray Zone, China, Ransomware, and Afghanistan
China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran continue to remain at the top of the list for the IC; however, recent events in Afghanistan mean counterterrorism can’t be forgotten. Both Berrier and Cohen confirmed that the odds of Al-Qaeda reconstituting in the next one to two years are strong. While a crystal ball would help that prediction, Cohen acknowledged that “while we’re already seeing indicators of movement, it’s early days.” While Cohen couldn’t publicly specify what techniques are being used now that the military is out of Afghanistan, he did say that the IC is collecting information in every way possible.
The consistent theme from IC leaders is that China continues to be a threat. Scolese explained that China wants to be a leader, and they want to erode U.S. systems in any way possible – whether that’s from the ground or in space. Staying technologically ahead is critical.
The panel discussed how influence operation and gray zone measures, and Nakasone pointed to the collaboration in government between CISA and FBI to support defensive cybersecurity efforts. Nakasone explained that influence operations are a cheap and easy way for governments like Russia to engage. But a lot has improved in our abilities to combat disinformation, and the capabilities will continue to grow.
When asked about Russia’s response to ransomware, Abbate said that the FBI has zero indication that the Russian government is cracking down on ransomeware issues – despite President Biden’s interactions with Putin. Nakasone commented that when the President determines the way forward in dealing with Russia, the IC will support him with a number of different options.
Despite the challenges, all agreed that new opportunities are still ahead. Cohen commented that the CIA has an innovation, technology spirit with a growing staff bent on bringing about change and impacting national security. That spirit resonated with all the panelists at the onset of this new decade in national security.