Observations from the BENS Washington Forum – Part I – Thoughts on the Intelligence Community

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending the 23rd Annual Business Executives for National Security (BENS) Washington Forum.  It’s no surprise that BENS lined up the who’s who from the Department of Defense, the Intelligence Community and from the defense industry as a whole.  While some issues discussed were only reminders of what many of us already know, it was enlightening to hear the opinions of some of the most senior leaders in national security. 

The first speaker to make comments – after BENS CEO, General Montgomery Meigs,  USA (Ret), did a great job starting the forum – was Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn, Assistant Director of National Intelligence for Partner Engagement, working in the Office of the Director for National Intelligence (ODNI).  LTG Flynn explained many important developments in the world of intelligence and its role in both national security and law enforcement.  I thought he made some great points, but among them stood a few that really got my attention.  First and foremost was his comment below. 

 “We need to force intelligence into operations rather than accept the traditional approach of just supplying intelligence for specific operations.” 

Think about that for a minute.  It sounds pretty intuitive, right?  I’m no military intelligence professional.  I’m not in “operations” within DoD, DHS or a law enforcement organization.  However, you don’t need to be “an insider” to understand the power behind LTG Flynn’s point.  Reacting to intelligence in a compartmentalized fashion really isn’t that effective; it has to be part of the fabric of any successful organization.  All too often we seek knowledge in reaction to a problem instead of seeking out knowledge knowing of a problem, a challenge, etc., that is likely to happen.  This theme of intelligence-driven operations drove many of LTG Flynn’s comments.  And it’s a theme that makes a lot of sense – whether one is in business or in government. 

Much of LTG Flynn’s remarks talked about what he believes to be the three major strategic advantages for the United States – rule of law, our military and our intelligence system.  Amidst a fascinating explanation of his views of those strategic advantages, LTG Flynn described how the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is leading the domestic effort to stand up and coordinate domestic intelligence to help security and law enforcement functions.  This FBI-led effort is working to develop 12 regions to coordinate intelligence activities for 70+ fusion centers (focused on law enforcement and security).  Fusion centers – many of which are state-operated (although many receive federal funding) –meet the objective of intelligence-driven law enforcement. 

Regarding the intelligence system as a whole, LTG Flynn shared some interesting observations.  First was the assertion that we do NOT have a collection problem.  Given the right focus on the right problem, intelligence gathering is never the issue.  The issue is having the focus on the right issues – the next emerging threat.  Let me try to put some context around this statement.  This idea ties into the history of our intelligence system – a system that largely grew up as a machine to help contain communism, namely the former Soviet Union.  Some 20 years after that threat ceased to be a real problem, we have many different threats competing for attention.  What I thought I heard was a series of remarks to the effect of without that big single threat we have many instances of the intelligence system driving strategy and not the other way around.  So if the goal is to identify the emerging threats to counter them before they become major threats, drum roll…here is the billion dollar question…what’s the answer?  What’s the strategy to drive the intelligence system? 

So what’s the big takeaway from all of LTG Flynn’s comments?  Depending on who you are and what you do, odds are you’ll walk away with something different.  I have two very significant takeaways. 

First and foremost, it’s pretty clear to me that we – as a country – have a remarkable capability to work intelligence challenges.  However, without some strategy to guide the threats to be focused on, a well-tuned machine to share intelligence related to the strategy, and an effective, efficient process to push that intelligence into day-to-day operations, even the best intelligence systems don’t realize their full potential.  We’ve spent a lot of time developing a “muscle” to flex to be able to solve many of the thorniest intelligence challenges out there.  What can be done both in government – and the private sector – to develop smart strategies to harness a robust intelligence system and not the other way around?   

Second, LTG Flynn made the comment about forcing intelligence into operations and not having operations selectively pulling intelligence for a specific event.  I’ve seen this as the case in businesses – big and small –struggle to proactively acquire, analyze and disseminate competitive intelligence into their business development and capture activities.  All too often, companies only begin to gather and analyze intelligence shortly before or during a proposal to win contracting opportunities.  Wrong!  This is about as bad a strategic sin as is playing one of my favorite games: RFP Whac-A-Mole, where companies chase after whatever opportunities pop up.  Having a well-developed strategy, a collection of intelligence and analysis on your threats, and everyone aligned to execute an operation (intelligence or capture alike) are as important in national security as it is in business.  In the end, we’re all sharing a mission of survival and continued success.    

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