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DIA deputy director talks agency priorities, leading during COVID-19

By Tyra Virgil, DIA Public Affairs Defense Intelligence Agency

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The Defense Intelligence Agency’s Deputy Director Suzanne White participated in a virtual webinar hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, June 24.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, INSA’s weekly virtual speaker series has helped the Intelligence Community stay connected by continuing discussions on significant issues impacting government, academia and industry.

With more than 800 people registered, the webinar featured a conversation between White and INSA’s president, Suzanne Wilson Heckenberg. The discussion centered on the Agency’s top priorities, DIA’s collaboration with industry and lessons learned in leadership.

White opened the discussion by talking about the importance of artificial intelligence and how the Agency plans to apply it in the future, highlighting the Agency’s effort with the Machine-assisted Analytic Rapid-repository System as an example.

“MARS is a good example of where we are going to seek to continue to apply artificial intelligence, particularly as it matures over the coming years,” said White.

The MARS team aims to transform current databases that house foundational military intelligence into a multidimensional, flexible and rigorous data environment. 

The Agency recently hit a major milestone with MARS, rolling out the system’s first Minimal Viable Product on June 28.

“The MVP gives us a lot of hope and a window into that future to see AI truly adding value …  adding capability in terms of the amount of data. Having an AI capability to really help our analysts navigate through the data is going to be essential to our future,” White explained.

What will MARS look like going forward? White says it will be a more agile and robust environment that is also more user-friendly.

“We needed a new environment to access data sources that the other databases previously did not.” She continued, “Going forward, we’re looking at an order of battle for our next MVP. We’re going to look at space, cyber and intel mission data as well over the next coming years.”

In addition to MARS, White spoke about DIA’s collaboration with industry and emphasized that the Agency’s industry partners are critical and indispensable to the mission.

“We have upwards of a thousand folks who have been coming in every day as mission essential,” White said. “The role that our industry partners play in our mission success is clear every single day.”

On the topic of leadership, White shared that one of the biggest lessons in leadership she has learned during this time is how to challenge assumptions.

“Six months ago, we’d never even thought it would be possible to do what we’re doing unclassified right now,” White said. “It has been amazing to see what we are able to do in the unclassified space … We’re doing a lot of analysis and open source work with our folks at home and that’s proven to be very effective.”

White also discussed how her approach to leadership has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic started, highlighting communication as the key to success.

“Communication has become indispensable. Making sure our folks, regardless of what they’re doing and where they’re doing it, feel valued. Feel connected. Feel like they haven’t been forgotten just because they aren’t in the building,” White said.

White shared that as a leader it’s her job to help the workforce navigate through this time. She mentioned that managing a large, globally dispersed population can be hard and challenging but it’s imperative that local leaders not only check in on work, but on the personal side too. 

As DIA officers continue to adjust to the new normal of a post-COVID-19 work environment, White stated the Agency must keep up the momentum.

“This is a marathon now,” said White. “We’re learning all these new skills of being leaders from afar and being leaders virtually. That can be challenging, and we’ll have to continue to work at it. She added, “Our mission isn’t stopping, so we can’t slow down.”