• An Atlas V lifts National Reconnaissance Office Launch-55, carrying a classified satellite and 13 CubeSats into orbit late last year. The increasing use of digital technologies in intelligence has compelled the CIA to create a new directorate dedicated to incorporating digital innovation across the agency.
     An Atlas V lifts National Reconnaissance Office Launch-55, carrying a classified satellite and 13 CubeSats into orbit late last year. The increasing use of digital technologies in intelligence has compelled the CIA to create a new directorate dedicated to incorporating digital innovation across the agency.

The CIA Accelerates Innovation

June 1, 2016
By Robert K. Ackerman
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A new directorate focuses on digital technologies across the agency’s spectrum of operations and analysis.


The CIA’s newest directorate consolidates several technology business units into one hub organization focused on deeply embracing innovative approaches and capabilities throughout the agency. As part of an effort to make digitization commonplace in both operations and analysis, the CIA also will work with industry to speed up the adoption of cutting-edge technologies. To start, the agency will add some of the latest data capabilities in the infosphere, and then it will nurture new technologies as they emerge from laboratories in government and industry. 

Known as the Directorate of Digital Innovation, or DDI, this organization is concentrating on inherent capabilities at the core of agency activities, as opposed to generic intelligence functions. “Information is the agency’s lifeblood,” says Andrew Hallman, who leads the unit as deputy director of the CIA for digital innovation. “Our responsibility here is to nourish and develop that digital bloodstream in which we execute the mission.”

The main driver for forming the directorate was a recognition that the CIA’s digital environment pervaded all its business areas, and the agency needed to more deeply embrace technical approaches and capabilities throughout those areas, according to Hallman. Yet some of the agency’s most capable elements lacked the digital acumen to exploit new technologies, so that task needed to be consolidated in a hub organization.

“In the future, we would like to ensure that our operations are so digitally enabled that [digitization] is just part of the fabric of how we do espionage and the conduct of intelligence,” he explains. “There is a graveyard of innovation attempts and efforts because they have been treated in the past as separate and distinct innovation activities—the ‘othering’ of innovation. We have to spur and cultivate the organic innovation that happens naturally in many of the mission components. Our job in the DDI is not only to help create those conditions so operators and analysts can innovate at the local level, but also to find ways to scale that [innovation] from where it naturally occurs.”

Hallman offers that intelligence compartmentation may have been one reason that previous innovation efforts did not succeed. But he describes “the classic human tendency” to try to preserve a sense of ownership in any large organization as a greater inhibitor. This includes a sense of data ownership instead of the more desirable data stewardship. Delivering value to employees ultimately can help the agency overcome that issue, he believes.

“It requires a heavier lift right now in the short term, but we’d like over time for this to be simply a natural extension of how we conduct intelligence around the globe,” he emphasizes.

Although the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) conducts its own research, beginning with the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), Hallman does not see any conflict or redundancy in the establishment of the CIA’s DDI. “We want to leverage and integrate those inherent strengths of the constituent elements of the intelligence community, so we don’t necessarily want the ODNI to be the one to have to innovate,” he says. “We want them to help create the conditions for innovations among the agencies’ intelligence community elements. 

“I see the ODNI as a facilitator. Ultimately, [innovation] needs to be happening organically at those grass-roots levels within the intelligence community,” Hallman emphasizes. The DDI’s goal is “to routinely ride the crests of the waves of innovation.”

Among the technologies atop the directorate’s list is the cloud computing environment. Hallman explains that the CIA cloud must be “elastic, scalable, reliable and secure.” The DDI is trying to enhance the cloud with a consistent, compatible, automated data layer that allows freer and more automated access. Sophisticated analytics could be applied to that data layer “at the speed of missions,” he adds.

Much of what the DDI is doing in this realm is foundational. The cloud computing environment is the architectural base on which a data management framework can be applied that makes data more secure, discoverable, governable and accessible for those who need it, Hallman offers. “In some respects, we’re trying to free the data from its captivity to some applications,” he explains. “We want to create that larger data layer where we can do more large-scale data correlation in a cloud computing environment.”

The DDI also is seeking new ways of conveying insights for intelligence consumers, Hallman says. This might include presenting findings more dynamically to customers who increasingly are used to 24-hour news cycles. “We’re not trying to compete with a news cycle, but we have to find ways to convey insight … at a greater speed and shorten the intelligence cycle,” he states. “Our intelligence is only as good as the effectiveness by which we communicate it.” The directorate wants to combine the power of big data with the power of visualization to convey complex national security issues more quickly, he adds.

The goal is to make digital technology an element of “a natural form of how we do intelligence,” Hallman continues. It would not be separate or distinct either in operations or analysis. Even if new digital technologies are “fancy gadgets from the Q Department,” they would be easily assimilated into the agency’s operations. Users would worry less about needing to invest in new technologies and more about how to employ them in tradecraft. 

The consolidation of digital capabilities into one directorate does not change the CIA’s long-standing role as the intelligence community’s leader in human intelligence (HUMINT), Hallman declares. The goal is to improve HUMINT collection, he says, by helping HUMINT operators employ cyber and digital capabilities during espionage activities. Some areas of the agency have embraced the DDI consolidation and are executing their roles well, but others have not because they lack either the experience or the focus, Hallman offers.

The biggest challenge facing the directorate has been harnessing what had been separate and distinct business units, such as the cyber, open source, information technology and data science areas, he relates. They were integrated in a redefinition of what a digitally informed intelligence tradecraft can be. The new directorate, which is the first in more than 50 years, comprises a series of business and cultural mergers concurrent with a major modernization effort underway at the agency. “Change upon change upon change” is how Hallman describes it.

Still, the most significant hurdle may be cultural, he offers. Employees must learn to understand the need for the reorganization and the different way of doing business, so the directorate must make the business case compelling, and employees must embrace their legacies. The Open Source Center now is the Open Source Enterprise, and the Information Operations Center now is the Center for Cyber Intelligence, for example. All the newly integrated elements have their own distinct cultures that must be both celebrated and forged into a larger identity, Hallman states. The whole would be greater than the sum of its parts.

From a personnel perspective, he says, the directorate is building a capability to unleash inherent talent to a greater degree. This might entail creating more virtual environments so employees are not bound to their desks or defined by meetings or teams. “Let the market forces of the work force swarm those problems,” Hallman suggests. 

The DDI is creating an entirely new type of career service model, he continues. Instead of forming along directorate lines, the new model is establishing skills communities that bring together related specialties to foster integration and leverage digital tradecraft against mission priorities. These skills communities currently are sited within the directorate, but some ultimately may be shared across organizational lines. 

The DDI is seeking both depth and breadth of digital skills, Hallman says. These include data science, cyber and systems engineering skills, to name three. The directorate wants to be “deliberate and intentional” about the quality of internal and external talent it brings in, he adds, to maintain selectivity.

Future skills communities may recruit talent from other agency directorates, and the DDI would be responsible for managing these communities and their officers’ professional development. The work would be done closest to the particular intelligence mission. The skills community model will help officers advance professionally and mobilize their abilities across directorate and mission center lines, Hallman states, adding that the CIA is trying to replicate the model throughout the agency.

The agency also is working with industry to quicken its pace of innovation. For many years, the CIA’s own venture capital firm, In-Q-Tel, has invested in private-sector technologies with intelligence applications. Hallman emphasizes that the DDI has a close partnership with In-Q-Tel and considers the directorate’s work complementary and mutually informative. On a basic level, the DDI is focusing on digital ecosystems and emerging digital methodologies, academic research and development and best practices in industry, he notes. The CIA’s In-Q-Tel investments are in that context and are at the center of how the DDI needs to leverage the private sector and venture capital community.

Part of the DDI’s focus will be to speed up the transfer of solutions from In-Q-Tel to the agency, Hallman continues. This may represent the greatest advantage that the DDI offers In-Q-Tel. The directorate can strengthen the CIA’s relationship with In-Q-Tel and help translate and prioritize requirements for the venture capital entity as well as identify critical emerging digital issues and capabilities the agency needs to leverage, he declares, adding, “I think we can get even more value out of In-Q-Tel with the DDI.”

As a whole, the directorate will have “a very close and robust relationship” with the private sector, Hallman predicts. This is vital for the directorate to improve at detecting emerging technology trends, accelerate technology insertion into the workplace and create the internal conditions for the talent market to swarm problems. 

Hallman cites the agency’s relationship with Amazon as a mechanism that helps speed up the transition of best-of-breed practices and solutions to the intelligence community. He sees this firm as a great example of “bringing commercial parity to our front door by virtue of our relationship with them” and calls the relationship a good model for others between the DDI and the private sector. 

The DDI is undertaking a “very robust outreach to industry,” Hallman states. He often meets with industry representatives and examines relationship models. A digital futures unit within the DDI will be on the front lines to manage the directorate’s relationship with In-Q-Tel and to scan the frontiers of technology for innovations that could be rolled out rapidly to the CIA. The unit also will strive to develop new models for introducing capabilities, with a focus on shortening timelines.

Speed will be the primary focus of the directorate’s relationship with industry, Hallman offers. While the agency has a lot of breadth of engagement with the private sector, it must bring in capabilities much faster. He adds that industry has become much better at outreach to the CIA and often contacts it more routinely than the agency reaches out to industry.

Looking a decade ahead, Hallman offers that, at a minimum, his hope is for the DDI to enable every component in the CIA to work fluidly between digital and real-life domains. A dynamic digital ecosystem will provide greater organizational agility built on real-time and anticipatory intelligence. The skill of leveraging digital capabilities will be so embedded in the culture and day-to-day business of the CIA that the DDI will be needed only to identify cutting-edge capabilities. 

But the agency will need to think about “rewiring the neural-digital pathways of work,” Hallman states. This would entail thinking differently about employing mobility solutions, leveraging data more quickly and creating conditions so the neural pathways of work play out through networks that generate organically and spontaneously.

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