The “New Normal” and DIA

It is Memorial Day and I am surprised by how inured I am to our military being at war for 13 years now.  I am careful to say the military rather than the nation being at war, because since 9/11 two very different two-term Presidents have as a matter of policy made the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan the sole purview of the armed forces vice the nation they are protecting.  It seems to me that in different ways both the Bush and Obama Administrations reached the same political calculation: if the American people have to sacrifice in terms of higher taxes, reduced entitlements or less consumer goods they will quickly use their voting power to end these conflicts. Now the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to have come to an end out of wearing frustration and crushing expense with results that don’t seem to have made the United States any safer.  This is especially true when we consider what a small group of passionately anti-American terrorists operating from a failed state can do with kinetic, chemical/biological, or cyber weapons of mass destruction.  We have, however, demonstrated what terrorists can expect should they bring harm to the homeland of the United States.

It is in this context I am viewing the news of the world in a state of constant crisis as being the “new normal,” from the coup in Thailand, Boko Haram taking 200 school girls hostage, continuing armed conflict in Syria, escalating violence in Iraq, political upheaval in Egypt, instability in Pakistan, events in the Ukraine, or the confrontation in the South China Sea.  In all of his public appearances for the past year or so Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Director LTG Mike Flynn has been warning that crisis is the “new normal” and implying that solid intelligence is the capability most in need by policy makers and military operators for sorting out which world events present serious security threats to the interests of the United States and how to effectively deal with them.  In other words, putting this daily menu of crises into context so that national energy and resources can be effectively engaged against those that matter the most. And when force is employed by providing military commanders with decision advantage.

Given his Special Operations Forces (SOF) background and his description and prescription for what is wrong with military intelligence in his seminal 2010 paper “Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan”,  I was not surprised by Mike Flynn’s aggressive efforts through personnel and organizational change to make DIA more relevant to decision makers and military officers dealing with constant crisis.  I was surprised, however, that for reasons not clear to me he was not continued for a normal third year of his tour as DIA Director because according to press reports he was disruptive!  Really?  So what was the DoD and IC leadership who selected him to lead DIA expecting from a person this transparent?

DIA was established in 1961 to provide the Secretary of Defense and the wider defense enterprise with timely, relevant, and actionable intelligence to support policy, acquisition, and operations. DIA was also seen as adding to the competitive analysis of intelligence offered by the military services State Department and the CIA.  Nonetheless, DIA has struggled throughout its history to establish itself on an equal professional footing with the CIA and the other four national intelligence agencies (NSA, NRO, NGA, and FBI).  Since the mid-1990’s I have observed Flynn’s seven  predecessors become DIA Director with a mandate and/or agenda to revive DIA and make it a more meaningful player for DoD’s needs and by extension give it influence within the larger Intelligence Community (IC) commensurate with its mission and size.  In their own ways each of these well thought of three star officers achieved incremental success in modernizing and equipping DIA for the post-Cold War Intelligence challenges DoD, the IC and the nation faced.  In aggregate, though, none of these seven directors significantly changed how DIA was perceived externally by its consumers or IC peers; nor did they impact how DIA is internally viewed by its own workforce.

When Mike Flynn became Director DIA in July 2012 it seemed to me his approach for changing DIA was employing a quick hitting “SOF raid” where he and a cadre of trusted subordinates in short order shifted over 100 SES’s to new positions (detaching most from their bureaucratic power bases) while also reorganizing DIA out of its hierarchical structure to a flatter more fluid “centers” based approached driven by consumer needs.  In retrospect what LTG Flynn misgauged was that as a bureaucratically hardened target with practiced survival skills DIA was not a good SOF target.  In the end it seems DIA’s entrenched ways attrited Flynn’s more agile but smaller force before he could change DIA’s organizational outlook.  DIA’s change-resistant culture also got some serious top cover from the military service intelligence organizations that see gains for DIA as working against their prestige and budgets.  Similarly, CIA has no interest in DIA becoming a meaningful counterweight on the military side to its role as the IC’s leading all source intelligence producer.

I suspect Mike Flynn understood that there were long odds against dramatically changing DIA on his watch, but doing a risk verses benefit calculation I can see where he saw virtually only personal danger to himself and unlimited upside if the effort to make DIA more relevant to the “new normal” environment of continuing crisis succeeded. Presumably, whoever the next DirDIA is they will be informed by LTG Flynn’s experience of attempting to rapidly alter DIA and return to a path of incremental change for the agency.

Here are some recommendations I hope the next DIA Director will consider as this officer assesses the direction they want DIA to move in:

  • No reorganizations; play the cards you are dealt so the DIA workforce will stop being concerned about organization charts and be more focused producing intelligence.  Moreover, continuing the DIA “Centers” will allow the agency to avoid the disruptive ad hoc task force response to crises that it has traditionally used.
  • The quickest path to relevance is through tailored embedded (virtual where this makes sense) intelligence support teams for military operating forces going in harm’s way.  DIA “go teams” that train up with SOF, Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine units they are supporting will provide these units with better intelligence while infusing DIA at the working level with what military forces need and how they want it.
  • Avoid becoming “cyber warriors” but develop a deeper understanding of collection, analysis, signatures, and order of battle associate with the cyber domain.  What should the Modernized Intelligence Data Base (MIDB) look like for cyber targets?
  • Intelligence support to DoD acquisition is under served and is in the sweet spot of DIA’s capabilities and strengths.  Begin to view intelligence for acquisition as supporting the next generation of warfighters.
  • Information Technology (IT) is an “enabler” but not a core mission for DIA so stop spending so much time and money on it!  Shift to an outsourced managed services model similar to Ground Breaker to both save money and improve IT infrastructure performance.  Turn DIA to being an IT consumer/follower vice developer/innovator.  Leverage IT capabilities offered by ICITE, DI2E, and DISA

In the final analysis it doesn’t matter if DIA becomes a more relevant IC player through revolutionary or evolutionary change.  The radical organizational change and sense of urgency LTG Flynn has introduced into DIA, I believe will provide the next DirDIA a platform to help DIA through an incremental approach to achieving its true potential

That’s what I think; what do you think?

4 comments on “The “New Normal” and DIA

  1. Collin Agee says:

    Joe, you set the stage for your commentary by asserting, “Now the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to have come to an end out of wearing frustration and crushing expense with results that don’t seem to have made the United States any safer.” And yet, there have been no major attacks on US soil since 9/11. So if we don’t acknowledge the positive achievements, we run the risk of overlooking what has contributed to and will continue to be needed to provide security. Sure, there’s a debate about how relevant Afghanistan and Iraq have been to this security, but it’s pretty clear that denying terrorist sanctuary in the former has been contributory.

  2. Absolutely spot on — 5 recommendations should be SMART goals (i.e., performance evaluation criteria) for new DirDIA . IT recommendation alone would reduce the number of “cart before horse” incidents which distract from core mission and skill set of the Agency.

  3. John Allison says:

    Joe, you offer an interesting prism through which to look at General Flynn’s tenure at DIA. No doubt there is some truth to many of your observations. That said, there is one thing that is indisputable — if General Flynn’s boss (or bosses if you prefer) were happy, then General Flynn would have been continued for the “normal” third year of his tour. DIA may be a “bureaucratically hardened target.” DIA may have “entrenched ways.” The senior executives at DIA may seek to build and strengthen their power bases. But I don’t know an organization of DIA’s size that doesn’t have those characteristics. In the final analysis, it was General Flynn’s seniors — not his subordinates — who decided his fate. Looking towards the future, you offer the incoming Director some good advice. Let me second your first point. You do not reorganize an organization into excellence. You lead it into excellence.

  4. Roger Rosewall says:

    The press reported LTG Flynn’s deputy David Shedd was retiring also. Is that just a coincidence, or was he judged to be persona non grata by his association with Flynn? I attended a DIA town hall meeting at the Pentagon about a year and half ago where David Shedd spoke eloquently without notes for about 30 minutes regarding current threats, DIA transformation, etc. I remember thinking that LTG Flynn was lucky to have such a man as his deputy.

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