Intelligence National Security Alliance (INSA) Leadership Dinner with
DIA Director LTG Robert P. Ashley, Jr.
Renaissance Arlington Capital View Hotel, Arlington, VA
Thursday, March 8, 2018
This transcript has been edited slightly for brevity and clarity.
Director Ashley: Chuck [Alsup], Tish [Long] in absentia, thanks for the invite. INSA, thank you very much, and for everybody else that came tonight. If you are a former Army G2 or DIA director, please leave. [Laughter] Or, at least if they are at your table, take their [question submission] cards, and I’ll get started. When you are a lieutenant, you join the service and in your wildest dreams, you never see this kind of opportunity coming to you. Not in your wildest dreams. And I gotta tell you, I’ll talk tonight about what it really means for me to be part of the intel community. DIA is a big part of that, but it really is about me and how I’m looking at the IC [Intelligence Community]. Five months into the job and I am a work in progress, and as long as I’m fortunate enough to do this for the next three years, I’ll be a work in progress. Because this is such an amazing organization, and the learning that I go through every day is constant.
Somebody asked what was my first impression. I said I am blown away by the level of expertise. But it’s not just in the DIA. It’s in the Army G2; it’s at every place that I’ve ever gone in the IC, and all the folks that support it are just amazing. So I feel blessed by the opportunity that I have, but one of the neat things about being in this job is there’s a lot of former DIA directors out there. Where did Admiral Jacoby go? I see you hiding there; there you go. So he’ll appreciate this because he’s already seen this before.
If I could get the first slide. So we had a homecoming [at DIA] a couple of months ago, and we had six former directors come in. So I had an opportunity to sit down with them, closed door, we had lunch. And I’d like to think that I’m humble enough and smart enough to keep my mouth shut and my ears open and learn. So the picture you have right there is actually me and General [Harry E.] Soyster, who back in the ’89-’91 timeframe was the DIA director.
So the path that we go on in our careers is interesting, and you never know when you’re gonna come across someone that you met before. Next slide. So I am a graduate of DIA 1990 Post Grad Intel Program, and I gotta tell you, when I was a lieutenant and a captain, as the caption says, “How hard can this be to pass out cards and shake hands?” Notice, I got the obligatory round glasses if you’re an intel professional back in the 80’s and the 90’s. Those were standard issue; I got them when I was in at [Fort Huachuca]. But I gotta tell you, that picture for me is priceless. That picture for me is priceless, because what you’ll notice in the picture on the right side is as we recreated it 27 years later, that’s the picture. Of course General Soyster says, “Oh yeah, of course I remember, you were an average student. I’m surprised you graduated.” OK, kill the slide. If you want a copy of that I’ll send it to you. I sent it to all the former directors because I thought that was such a cool moment.
Like I said before, I don’t just want to talk to you about DIA. I want to talk to you about the IC. And it really is, how you can help us. And not how you can help DI [defense intelligence]— how you can help the IC.
I think we’ve hit a point right now where there has got to be a symbiotic relationship across the IC that we move forward together as a community. Because the lines that have existed in the past, and I can show you those lines: well, don’t talk to me about the DIE [Defense Intelligence Enterprise], don’t talk to me about the IC, don’t talk to me about the MIP [Military Intelligence Program, don’t talk to me about NIP [National Intelligence Program]. Talk to me about the capabilities that we have to build for the Nation and how do we move forward. And if we have to change those rules, then we’ll change those rules.
So at the heart of what we do, we provide leaders with decision advantage. And a great friend of mine, Scotty, and I had an opportunity to work down at CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command] for a phenomenal American, our Secretary of Defense General Mattis—which, for Scotty and I probably, it’s hard for us to say Secretary Mattis; General Mattis comes off much easier. But what he told us in the J2 [Directorate for Intelligence], he said, “So here’s your guidance. Don’t let me get surprised.” So my task that I carry over now, and I know Scotty carries over and so many others, such as [MajGen] Mike Groen, Joint Staff J2 is don’t let the Chairman get surprised. Don’t let the Secretary get surprised.
You hear a lot of talk in times like this, the level of complexity in the world, but it’s not the nature of war, but the character of war that’s changed. There are so many things that we do that are absolutely fundamental and basic that we have to continue to master to be successful. And I say that in the context of a quote that I pulled out from General Mattis, and he loves to talk about history, and if you ever get a chance to just Google “Mattis quotes” or something online, they are absolutely insightful.
So when Thucydides talked about war, and he wrote about the Peloponnesian War, he said the nature of war is fear, honor, and interest. That is immutable, that has not changed, that exists today: fear, honor, and interest. And as we sat in front of the SASC [U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee] on Tuesday morning with the DNI [Director of National Intelligence], and what wonderful time for the story to break, for your annual threats testimony, that Kim Jung Un says, “I think I’d like to have a conversation. Let’s talk about the nuclear weapon.” Over the last week as I was preparing for SASC testimony, every time something would break on the news, I would just go, please, no stories. I am accountable for everything that happens in front of the SASC.
So let me give you a point from General Mattis that came out of the Wall Street Journal: “For all the ‘Fourth Generation of War’ intellectuals running around today saying that the nature of war has fundamentally changed, the tactics are wholly new, et cetera, I must respectfully say, ‘Not really.’ Alexander the Great would not be in the least bit perplexed by the enemy that we face right now in Iraq and our leaders going into this fight do their troops a disservice by not studying —studying vice just reading—the men who have gone before us.” And so as you think about how you support the IC, my task to you is context. And that’s what General Mattis is really talking about. You have to understand the context of the fight. And so for our various industry partners, you cannot divorce context from the operational environment—it matters. So we have to understand, we have to study the operational environment, and that is the context in which the problems we have will be solved.
The nature of war is immutable. The character is changing; it is changing every day, and that is one of the things I wanted to highlight. So let me give you an example of one of the key things that is changing: speed. Even the conversations we had next door before we came in here, that was one of the points that was made, how we deal with data, how we deal with speed, how do we deal with the velocity of change.
So let me tell you a story about a monk and a vegetable vendor. Go back to June of 1963, self-immolation in protest to the way the Buddhists were being treated in Vietnam. Everyone knows the photo; there’s actually video of it. So the guy who took the picture, his name was Malcolm Browne. So what did Malcolm get out of that? He got a Pulitzer Prize. He was an AP reporter; the picture went on the AP, and it went around the world. It became a postcard in Europe. It was distributed by the Chinese as evidence of U.S. imperialism. President Kennedy said no news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world than that one. What happened afterward? Five more immolations; nothing really changed for the Buddhist monks. The persecution continued. Five months later [Vietnamese] President [Ngo Dinh] Diem would be assassinated; less than three weeks later President Kennedy would be assassinated. But it was a slow transition. We look at the picture and we all know it, but the impact was different.
So fast-forward 47 years, it’s December of 2010. A Tunisian vegetable vendor, frustrated over the persecution, decides to engage in a similar act of self-immolation. And what happens? A month later the president of Tunisia fled and the regime was overthrown. It overturned governments in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and began the civil war in Syria that we still see today. Protests in Algeria, Lebanon, and Sudan, and the governments of Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Oman all instituted changes based on civilian demonstrations. Just imagine as the Arab Spring is kicking off, just imagine you’re the J2 of CENTCOM and what you’d be thinking, and what you would have wanted to know at that time. And who was that J2? His name was Ashley, right? And all the social media and all the technology and all the things that we have today, we did not have then.
We had a capstone class come through several months after all that kicked off. And for those who don’t know, capstoners are kind of the new flag grade officers that come through. And we all sat around in a big horseshoe, and at the head of the horseshoe was General Mattis, and we literally had one of the capstone officers say, “I don’t know why we spend all this money on intel. You guys couldn’t even see the Arab Spring coming.” So General Mattis weighed in and he said this was not an intel failure. All the indicators were there. What we did not know was the time, in which we would cross this threshold that would allow something so monumental as what took place in 2011 to happen. We saw the rising inequality, the increased corruption, the growing public discontent, but we were not able to pin down how that shifted a consciousness in the Arab world. What it meant in a larger regional context, that spontaneity could have so many governments tumbling down; we just couldn’t make the call on the timing. So Tahrir Square – what was knowable before that kicked off? If I had only had a gossip account at that point. What was knowable before the Russians went into Crimea? What was knowable before the Russians went into Ukraine? What’s happening now that we’re not seeing?
Mark Twain was famous for saying history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes. I had a great conversation with a very good friend the other day; he was over in the office and we were talking about some things in India-Pakistan, and he said, you know if you really want to solve Pakistan and that relationship with the Afghans, you have to solve the Pakistan-India problem first. And then he said there’s a couple of books you ought to read. One of them is A World Undone and it’s about World War I. He said the first chapter is incredible because it starts laying out all the signals and all the faint things that were happening that led us into World War I. So when a young Serb, Gavrilo Princip, one of six assassins in Sarajevo, decides to draw down on Archduke Ferdinand and his bride Sophie, was that knowable? For those of you who read history you’ve probably seen, a lot of times, when they talk about it’s amazing for everyone who was a part of that conflict, afterwards saying I cannot believe we literally walked backwards into this.
So what’s knowable? I don’t subscribe to the [idea] you completely eliminate the fog of war, but what I am concerned about now is the broader context of what we have in the way of great power conflicts. It is in our national security strategy; it is in our national defense strategy. We’re not walking away from CT [counterterrorism]; that is a fight that will carry to the next generation if not beyond. So many of us in here have been at it for 15, 16, 17 years and countless deployments.
I opened up by talking about unified view across the IC, and I say that because it’s not enough to connect the military dots. Because when Mike Groen goes in to the see the Chairman everyday he doesn’t say, “Mike, tell me about the military things. I’m not worried about the other stuff.” He says, “Mike, tell me about diplomatic, the information, the military, the economic things that are happening with China. What am I not seeing and what am I behind on? How do I get ahead of that?” And then how do we do that as an IC? So I think of that in a context: the speed of human interaction, the speed of information, and the sheer volume that is out there. Entire populations are being brought into and leveraging a global world that they never knew. And I don’t think we fully understand what this is going to look like in a decade. Because if you took me back 10 years and told me to describe 2018, I’m not sure I had the imagination to do it.
So consider the disruption of information that’s happening today. So if you like CBS, in 2017, they had about 8 million viewers; Netflix, 300 million in over 190 countries. The major hotel corporations – Hilton, Marriott, and InterContinental – 2.6 million hotel rooms around the world. Airbnb has over 4 million listings in 191 countries; Uber is the world’s largest taxi [company] with over 40 million active riders; Facebook the most popular media company around, 1.28 billion [users]. Netflix owns no airwaves, Airbnb owns no property, Uber owns no cars, and Facebook creates no content. And I have a big data challenge. I have security issues. It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous, right? My name is Bob and I have a big data problem. So what the IC needs to do is get to step 1 from a foundational standpoint and there’s a lot of work to do.
So core mission for us, at DIA, it really is that modernized, integrated database (MIDB); that foundation, it’s how we put down that military picture. But I think of that in the context of will I be crowdsourcing MIDB in the future?
And what does that mean for traditional analysis? I think traditional analysis from a tradecraft standpoint is like the nature of war; it is immutable. Solid tradecraft is solid tradecraft. The character is what changes in terms of the ways you bring information in, how you gather it. And then I think about, how do I source that? We even face the challenges of how do we source OSINT [open source intelligence] today, and how temporal is that information. Because we have records in MIDB that are somewhat old, and how quick is all that going to change. And how many people would take to do that if you had to do it manually like we do today, so much of it, although we are getting better and some of that is not manual. But how do you validate it? And how do you connect the IC across, in real-time, with something that is not PowerPoint and not a static database.
Just think, soon any country, any actor, with the right resources will be able to take all that data and in many cases use it for very nefarious purposes. When I watch CNN and I look at the ticker on the bottom, I think about economic intelligence and I think about where the commercial world is. And I watch that ticker go and I think somewhere there is somebody trading in real-time and in some cases, there’s an algorithm that has a threshold that says buy/sell, and there’s not even a human in the loop, because of the speed that’s required, much like our cyber defenses. If you had to wait for someone to hit a button for cyber, bad guys would be extracting data left and right.
So what lessons do we take away from this? From a technology standpoint the gap is closing and it will completely close in some ways in many kinds of technology. Because the bar’s pretty low; you’re not going to prevent people from buying cloud computing and other tools that are on the open market. So the genie’s out of the bottle. But it makes me think about a discussion I had with Peter Singer who wrote Ghost Fleet. We sat on an AUSA [Association of the United States Army] panel and the question for Peter was, what is that one game-changing technology you see coming out that’s just going to separate everybody. And he said it’s not so much I see something that’s going to separate everybody; it’s how do you use it? How do you operationalize it? And the example is, go back to World War II, the Germans had not cornered the market on radios, tanks and planes. Lots of people had radios, tanks, and planes, but what [Germany] did, how they operationalized it, how they put it to effect, was different, and it had an impact.
So let me go back just a second for the national security and defense strategy, because much of that is centered on the emergence of great power conflict. And like I said, I’ve got lots of time downrange on the CT [counterterrorism] mission and time with JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] and I know that is the fight of a generation. But I’ve got to tell you, when someone comes up to me and says, I’ve got a new CT tool on how to link someone to somebody else, you’re not getting my interest. If you’re going to come up and talk to me about some of my core functions—strategic I&W [indicators and warnings], foreign militaries, S&T [science and technology], and emergence of disruptive technologies—and you can say, watch this, the China Belt and Road Initiative, in real-time. And as you’re watching it and the Chinese decide to open a port in the Maldives and in the middle of that briefing, an icon appears in the Maldives. That’s the speed we have to operate [at]. So Mike [Groen] can show the Chairman opportunities, risks, and decisions in real-time to get ahead of our competitors.
So from an I&W perspective, how do we aggregate those faint signals? How do we get insights to what took place in 1914? And then I go back to the conversation I had with my friend, and that book, A World Undone, about World War I. It’s strangely interesting I’m seeing so many of those things today. What are we not seeing? Where’s the risk, where’s the opportunity? Where should we be moving forces, both operationally and strategically? And not just forces—where do we move as a nation? The IC has to inform all our major levers of power, not just the military.
And what we gotta do is figure out is how do we move humans up the value chain and get the machines work for us. I will never stop saying that our asymmetric threat that we have as a nation over anybody else is you. There is not another nation that brings the wealth of talent that this nation does. We talk about the changing character of war; how do we harness that technology to empower all of us. Because at the end of the day, we are the X-factor in the next conflict, or preventing a next conflict. An interesting thing I can tell you is, anyone who has rubbed shoulders with an operational commander [will tell you], they expect and assume we are doing all this already. So just think about the next conflict when it kicks off. They expect us to be ready. The operators are going to rally; they’re going through their drills. They expect us to already be ready when it kicks off. So how do we harness the information environment better, how do we synthesize right intelligence at the right time, and get it to the right people fast enough to increase that decision space [to] prevent [and] deter conflict, and if necessary, win the next war.
Thanks for leaving your salads alone; hopefully I was slightly more interesting than your salad, and I look forward to your questions. Thank you.