A Conversation With Vice Admiral Robert Sharp

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Director, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency


Chief Executive Officer and Vice Chairman, Kissinger Associates, Inc.; Vice Chairman, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations; Former Deputy Director for Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency (2002–2005)

Vice Admiral Robert Sharp discusses the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disaster response efforts, partnerships with industry and academia, and its future support toward U.S. foreign policy objectives.

MISCIK: Thank you. Welcome to all of you joining us here today. We have over four hundred members on our call, and we look forward to a very interesting conversation. I'm Jami Miscik. I'm the vice-chairman here at the Council on Foreign Relations and also the CEO of Kissinger Associates, but in the context of today's event, more importantly, I'm a long time standing serving member of the intelligence community-former, but there's no such thing as former. I served for many years at the CIA and also on President Obama's intelligence advisory board. So I have a great appreciation for the work that's done at the National Geospatial Agency (NGA), and it's a real privilege for me to introduce our speaker and welcome Admiral Sharp, the director of the National Geospatial Agency. Welcome, Admiral. 


SHARP: Jami, thanks for the welcome and thanks to Council on Foreign Relations for making this happen. You know, it's a kind of odd, but not so odd, that we're doing this via Zoom. We've been fighting through this global pandemic for so long. Now we don't even think twice when we say, "Hey, we're going to have a webinar or a Zoom meeting," we just do it. It's a great honor for me to be here. I looked through the list of attendees, and I recognize some of the names there. I recognize them as coworkers, former bosses, friends, and certainly a lot of luminaries. So I'm honored and humbled for the opportunity to be here with you today.


MISCIK: Well, Admiral, geospatial intelligence is probably a phrase that doesn't trip off the tongues of our members. So let's try and put into context what that encompasses. When I look at the NGA website, it talks about things like discovering atrocities in Kosovo, helping track Bin Laden, helping cities that host the Olympics, working with national assets here in terms of natural disasters. So what should our members know about NGA and the work you do?


SHARP: First of all, I'm excited that you read our website. For those who haven't been there or haven't been there in some time, please check it out. It's The team redesigned it and relaunched it just a couple of months ago, just to make sure we were putting out pertinent information to the community at large. You covered some of the types of things we do, you know, the "what" of NGA, which is we provide geospatial intelligence to a broad range of customers, policymakers, certainly our uniformed warfighting community, first responders, or anybody who needs that sort of perspective, because everything happens in time and space, and that's what we do. But at NGA, when we describe ourselves, we tell everybody our "why" proposition, giving a shout out to Simon Sinek, and start with "why." Our "why" proposition is to show the way. We like to say we exist to show the way to get you from point A to point B physically- safely, on time, and on target, or in the decision process. And we do that by having knowledge of the earth. So the knowledge of the earth entails a detailed understanding of the earth's physical characteristics from the seabed to space, and we have experts in bathymetry, topography, airography, and geodesy that understand those physical features so that we can start to build the products and the services to operate around the clock and around the globe. And also that foundational understanding that we take to layer on top of that, an understanding of the world, observations of what's happening where, and to add context and clarity to complex situations.


MISCIK: And when it comes to the COVID crisis that we're experiencing here in our country and around the world, what type of role has NGA played there?


SHARP: Yeah, so once again, things happen in time and space, and we have, as an agency and as an enterprise, other people who also do geospatial technology, geospatial intelligence, geospatial perspective. It helps you understand the impacts of a pandemic, where it's happening, where there are items of crisis, where there might be concerns over overloading medical facilities. There are a couple of things that I'm pretty proud of that we've done in this pandemic. One is not just about national geospatial intelligence. I'm also the functional manager for geospatial intelligence, and we run something called the national system for geospatial intelligence where we cooperate with over thirty U.S. government agencies to make sure we understand what their concerns are, advocate for their requirements, help them grow capability, and capacity themselves. Over the years, we have worked really closely with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in particular, where they have grown a pretty good geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) capability themselves. And they've been using geospatial intelligence services to help understand where the pandemic is occurring, how it's impacting medical facilities, et cetera. The second thing I'm really proud of is we continue that cooperation with FEMA to this day. We leverage commercial imagery and make that readily available to other government agencies. So think map-ready, high and medium resolution imagery that individuals can tap into and use. We make that available to international partners, and during this pandemic, FEMA, Department of Homeland Security, CDC have all availed themselves to those resources. And then a third thing I'd like to highlight is our partnership with DIA's NCMI, so their Center for Medical Intelligence. We have individuals who are colocated with them to make sure they have the geospatial intelligence they need to help understand what's happening, where.


MISCIK: What about when it comes to just your workforce coming into the building? Much of the work that goes on is classified. How have you coped with that at just a workforce level?


SHARP: That's a great question, and it's been a real journey. As we started facing this pandemic, one of the things I told our team is, I've been doing this for a few years now, a few decades, and I've been through a few crises, but this crisis is really different than anything I've experienced just because of the way it impacts us all. For those in the security business, we're used to dealing with security or natural disasters, but they're kind of finite in space and location, and this is really impacting everybody. So we, very similar to other agencies throughout the government, took deliberate steps to re-posture our force immediately. So we drove our numbers down on site. It was really counterintuitive for this workforce because they're used to a crisis occurring and immediately packing bags or bringing a sleeping bag into work because this is their appointed duty station. But we told them, no, we need you to go home. We're going to re-posture you, we're going to get you connected, and we're going to get you collaborating. So it took me about a good week to really convince people that no, I really meant we're going to drive our numbers down. From day one, I set the following North star that's been guiding us all along, which is, we will take all actions necessary to protect and preserve our force and our families while meeting the mission-critical needs of the nation. And initially, I started getting a lot of questions like, "Hey, what about," and I'd respond, I say again, all actions necessary to protect and preserve while meeting mission-critical needs of the nation. And that still is a balance that we're achieving, and that to protect and preserve our force. And family is important because, as you know, being a member of the intelligence community, and I like how you said you're never really a former, right, we're like the Hotel California, check out anytime you like, but you can never leave. But they are a national treasure, our people are a national treasure, and we need to keep them healthy for long term longevity and for the health of the security of this nation. We benefit kind of uniquely as an agency where we were already thinking about a future that entailed greater capability and flexibility and agility and how we operate at the unclassified, the collateral level, and at the top-secret level. So we already had programmed upgrades to our IT infrastructure as part of our longer-term IT modernization that was going to invest in our unclassified infrastructure. We just took advantage of this crisis to prioritize that. So we upgraded our server capacity, we upgraded our speeds, we started pushing tools down to the low side, and we went from supporting on a given day pre-COVID, on average, about three hundred remote access users, to supporting on any given day, seven or eight thousand easily with additional capacity. Then one last thing I want to highlight here, once we got ourselves re-postured, connected, communicating, collaborating, I challenged the workforce to take advantage of this crisis to reimagine ourselves. I told them, I not only want us to survive this pandemic, but I also want us to come out on the other end stronger and smarter and better in every way imaginable. I want us to commit to figuring out new ways, better ways of doing business that we won't go back from doing, that we'll adopt as our normal procedures. It's been impressive to see the creativity and ingenuity throughout our workforce. It's been really impressive. 


MISCIK: That's great. NGA has its history, if you will, in defense mapping, photo interpretation, which played a huge role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, as everyone recalls. But NGA also had to go through an amazing evolution to keep up with technology as it transforms. I was wondering if you could talk to us a little bit about what challenges do you see on the horizon there? And you have a strategy 2025; what are you focusing on?


SHARP: Thanks for both the question on strategy 2025 and bringing that up, and then also the technology. Strategy 2025, so when I came and took directorship from Robert Cardillo, who had been in here, he had just signed out Strategy 2025 within the last year, so I took a look at it, and it really resonated with me. But it had his signature in it, right, so I did take the time and effort to reissue it and simplify some of the words or change it into my voice, but I liked it because it really emphasized four strategic investment goals. People, investing in our people, partnerships, expanding and strengthening our partnerships, taking care of mission today while evolving for the mission tomorrow. So people, partnerships, mission today, mission tomorrow. It was very similar to what the Navy was following at that time, which was captured in a document called the design for maintaining maritime superiority, which emphasized current warfighting capability, high-velocity learning, evolving for the future, investing in your people, and strengthen your partnerships. The only difference was this put people first. I liked that because I've been in a lot of commands throughout my career that say mission-first people-always, and I've always thought that that's a little off mark. So we very deliberately say people-first mission-always. I feel that our people and our partnerships are our comparative advantage not only as an agency but as a nation. Our competitors wish they had our people. They wish they had the strengths of our partnerships. In describing the strategic environment these days, I say it really has two aspects, evolutionary aspects, and revolutionary aspects. On the evolutionary side of the house, it is captured really well in the national security strategy, national defense strategy, national intelligence strategy, but it describes the environment of including this competition, great power competition, return to great power competition, which includes competitors. It highlights the fact that weapon technology is evolving. People are developing weapon systems designed to defeat our ability to know where and when they're operating or to defend against those weapon systems. On the evolutionary side of the house, also there are these growing contested domains. So I say cyber and space, they're not new, but the way that they're becoming congested and contested and operational is new. On the revolutionary side, we're really at an inflection point specifically for geospatial intelligence; it has these dimensions to it, which is this significant proliferation of sensing ability—being able to sense what's happening where and when, and being able to monitor the earth and activities on it. There's also this exponential growth and computing power, and both of those bring along with them a requirement to have confidence in what you're looking at when you're ones and zeros. But that revolutionary side with growth in sensing advances and computing, that to me is the competition space. We need to make sure that we are partnering with new technology, taking advantage of new technology more effectively and more efficiently than our competitors if we want to do the things that I think our nation needs us to do.


MISCIK: I just want to pick up on the great powers point that you were making. In your director's intent, you describe China as a competitor and talk about that great power competition. Can you elaborate a little bit more on your views vis a vis China with regard to its intelligence capabilities and geospatial goals and ambitions?


SHARP: Thanks also for highlighting the director's intent. I'm pretty proud of the fact that during this pandemic, I mentioned strategy 2025, which I had issued about a year and a half ago, and certainly, after coming into office here, during the pandemic, we put out a number of documents to further identify who we are, what we're doing, where our direction is, and also ways that you can work with us. You mentioned the NGA director's intent, I happen to have a copy of it here, and one of the things that it starts with, it talks about our strategy and how our strategy is nested within national security strategy, defense strategy, intelligence strategy, and I describe mission imperatives and a moonshot. We were very deliberate about describing it in those terms, mission imperative and moonshot.


And the competition, you know, a competition means there are competitors. And I'm convinced that China, specifically since you asked about them, is investing in capabilities to be better at our business than us. To be better at knowing where things are happening better than us, and I've challenged not only my agency but the GEOINT enterprise to not let that happen. I like to win competitions, and as I say here, losing is easy, winning is hard, hard is authorized. But I mentioned that technology is available, being able to sense what's happening where it is available, that the computing power is available. The moonshot, as I described it here, was as such. While continuing to contribute to larger efforts to help the United States and allies compete successfully in this strategic environment short of conflict, which is always our desire, we will be laser-focused on developing and delivering the critical capabilities we uniquely provide the joint multinational warfighting force. This is our moonshot, and we will deliver trusted GEOINT with the speed, accuracy, and precision required to hold at risk the strategic forces our adversaries use to project power and threaten the United States and our allies. I left it generic by design, but it always begs the question, well, who do you mean, and I say, well, who is developing strategic forces used to project power and threaten the United States and our allies? That's what I'm concerned about. And when you talk about China specifically, I think you'll hear consistently from the U.S. government; we don't want a conflict with China. We don't want a conflict with China. We want to be able to cooperate peacefully and responsibly with China and uphold rules of law and standards of international responsibility. Two examples of why I'm concerned are related to that moonshot and geography. One, Anson Sharp sailed through the South China Sea in the Spratly Islands on the USS Ranger, and I tell the young kids when you Google that it's not the wooden ship with sail, it was the aircraft carrier, but that was back in the late 80s, and I can remember reading about the Spratly Islands and the disputes down there and looking at the Spratly Islands. They look very different today, and I think geospatial intelligence, geospatial perspective has shown and revealed that China has taken deliberate steps to grow those islands, to put runways on them, to connect them to mainland China with communications, and to militarize them. That concerns, certainly, a lot of nations that are out in that region, and it concerns us. The way that they are aggressive towards mariners out in that region has as my concern, and then you may recall this, back in 2018, it got picked up in the press, there was a Chinese Rear Admiral Yuan, Lu Yuan, and he was the deputy head of the Chinese Academy of Military Science. And he was speaking at the 2018 military industry list summit at that time, and he was talking about the United States military, and the gist of his message was, I think, that they aren't as strong as everybody thinks they are. I think they are risk-averse, I think they are loss-averse, and we should test their resolve by sinking a carrier or two. And that gets my attention because to me, that's not two big chunks of steel, that's 5,000 or 10,000 of my shipmates. And the talk alone is alarming, but if you watch and see what they're doing in weapons development, they are developing the capabilities to carry through on that sort of threat if they decide to do so, and we want to convince them every day that today is not that day to test our resolve.


MISCIK: You mentioned other countries in the region also having concerns. I saw that just at the end of last month, I believe, a new agreement was signed with India on intelligence sharing, and your agency will play a role in that.


SHARP: Yeah, that's the Basic Exchange and Cooperation (BECA) Agreement, which is a basic change in the cooperation agreement. I'm actually the signatory on that, and I have a picture posted up out in our entryway here of me signing that document. It was a great cooperative agreement that we signed with India's MOD, and it'll allow us to expand our partnership and exchange foundational information. And that exchanging and sharing of foundational information is a good basis to start to operate off the same sheet of music, right, off the same map, off the same chart. I've cooperated in previous capacities very closely with the Indian Navy, as well, a very capable, good, strategic partner, and I mentioned people and partnerships. When I talk about our partnerships, I mention to people, we not only have good friends, we have friends that are really good. They bring a unique perspective, they bring capabilities that we don't have, so we're really excited to see how we continue to expand and strengthen that important strategic partnership with India.


MISCIK: Let me go back to the technology for a moment, and tell me if I'm wrong about this. It seems to me that the intelligence community, the national security community, used to have capabilities within their abilities that did not exist in the commercial sector. Now we have all of these companies in the commercial sector who are developing capabilities that are similar, maybe not as exquisite, but similar. So how did you see that impacting mission? But then I'm also thinking about the more drones we have flying overhead collecting images, the more data we have been stored and brokered. Are you concerned that NGA will get caught by things like Europe's concern about a right to be forgotten or California's privacy laws where you can't be taking pictures of me in my backyard? I don't care if you're this commercial company doing it or the National Geospatial Agency. So I'm just trying to get a sense of how you see the commercial aspects affecting the NGA mission?


SHARP: That's a great question and brings up a whole host of issues.


MISCIK: If you like to bring lawyers in, though. (Laughs.)


SHARP: (Laughs.) First of all, I was born in Hawaii, but I grew up in the great state of California.


MISCIK: As did I.


SHARP: As you know, the intelligence community is very deliberate about how we operate in protecting civil liberties, and I'll share with you. I don't know if you know Sue Gordon.


MISCIK: Yes, very well.


SHARP:  Of course. As you know, she was not only the principal deputy director of national intelligence; she had also been the deputy director here from NGA. About a year and a half ago, we had some sessions with House intel oversight, and she started off by saying, hey, we want you to know four things about your intelligence community. One, we're innovative. We have fantastic people who are innovative, creative, and they thrive on solving hard problems. Two, we're integrated. It's not any individual agency alone, it's the magic that happens when the agencies cooperate and collaborate. Three, we're partnered. So I mentioned our partnerships are our strength. And fourth, she said, we're transparent. We welcome oversight, and we want the nation to know that we are doing the right things and doing them right. And we'll also be transparent about not only what we know but what we don't know, where we have shortfalls, and what we might do about that. So, first of all, as an intelligence community, we don't do collection and reporting in the U.S. With the exception from NGA, if another agency requests us to help them deal with a problem, and I think right now we were partnering and cooperating for the firefighting community to understand what was going out west to make sure they have the information they need to the greatest granularity to be successful fighting that. Or to work with FEMA on hurricane relief if it's hitting the U.S. But we're very, very, very dedicated to making sure we're not collecting and reporting on U.S. interests, U.S. citizens, U.S. persons. At the same time, you mentioned this becoming commercially available. The fact is, the world is becoming more sensed, and there are business aspects to that, right, that are really tapping into capabilities and growing awareness as to trying to understand people, their desires, etc. That I think will continue to play out in the courts as far as where do you hit that balance between what's good for us, what's of concern for us. But the technology that people are pursuing, I'm really interested. If they're solving a problem, and I might be able to use it for national security, and I don't have to create it out of my own mind, I want some of that.


And that's why we talk about the partnerships. Partnerships with industry and academia are something I'm passionate about, and one of the things we had put out during this pandemic was NGA tech focus areas. You can find that on our site- tech focus areas for 2020. This was a second iteration we had put out of this document. We had released it in 2019 at the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, which sponsored GEOINT symposium, which is very tech-heavy. A lot of industry partners bring their capabilities, and we didn't get to do it this year live because of the pandemic, but we put this out anyway, and it details those areas where we're pursuing advances in technology. It talks about the problem sets we have, and it details how people can partner with us to try to drive down some of those barriers on collaborating with the government. One last thing I'll mention along this line, you may be aware of the fact that we're building a new facility out in St. Louis and that's to replace one of our old compounds, which the compound itself dates back to pre-Civil War, but we are building in northern St. Louis and the community out there. There's a lot of investments in the geotech field and St. Louis is touting itself as the geotech hub, growing itself as the geotech hub of the nation, and I'd say of the world. But people are coming in that want to explore the use of geotechnology and geoperspective to solve a whole range of issues because everything happens in time and space. And we are taking deliberate steps to make sure that we are working closely with them out there. It's exciting.


MISCIK: That's great. Well, I'm cognizant of the time here and want to begin to open it up to our members for their questions but let me ask two last questions before we do that. Over the last several years, the intelligence community has faced some pretty sharp commentary and criticism from President Trump. What impact has that had on the people who work in the community? And as we're in this now transition limbo, post-election, how do you see that affecting the community in terms of morale? Not as much in terms of mission, I would think, but I look forward to your view.


SHARP: Now that's a great question, and I will tell you that just from my interactions with my own workforce and from the other communities, the morale is high. What I've told my workforce is, hey, we're not political. I mean, we get paid to do for what's the nation needs us to do, and especially during times of potential uncertainty where we might have competitors that think that they can take advantage of a lapse in our focus, we need to double down on doing what we do. So, you know, our people have not skipped a beat through the pandemic, through the elections, through everything that's going on, and a former leader, former Secretary of Defense, had talked about the department and the intelligence community in terms that really resonated with me. When he took office, he penned a note out to the entire Department of Defense, and he said, we, the department, along with the intelligence community, are the sentinels and the guardians of this nation, and I remind my workforce about that all the time. We are the sentinels and the guardians of this nation, along with the other members of the Department of Defense and the intelligence community. And for those tuning in here today, I will let you know that we have not skipped a beat. Around the clock and around the globe, we are monitoring and collecting and reporting on those things that our nation needs us to be concerned about.


MISCIK: That's great. Well, let me ask the operator to once again give instructions on how to ask questions. Operator?


STAFF: We will take our first question from Ron Shelp.


SHARP: Don't click on the red phone that hangs you up.


MISCIK: (Laughs.)


Q: Vice Admiral Sharp, thank you very much, very interesting. I want to get back to the question that Jami asked in a specific way. Somehow, I think of you being sort of a different part of the intelligence community because of what you do overseas, and it sort of amazed me that the Trump administration's views toward the intelligence community have not affected you. But let me give you a specific example. Apparently, we're going to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, and most of the experts, which I'm not, think it's a terrible idea and that the Taliban over time could take over the country. I just wonder what your views are on this.


SHARP: So, just so you know, we do have individuals who are deployed out in Afghanistan, colocated with our forces out there. So if you're not familiar with the construct of our agency, about 50% of our workforce is here in Virginia, where I'm sitting right now, about 25% is out in St. Louis, and the other 25% is all over the place. So we have NGA support teams embedded in the other intelligence agencies, we have NGA support teams colocated with other government organizations, with all of our combatant commands, and quite often with our tactical forces, and we have been deployed, along with our combat forces, in Afghanistan and Iraq for quite some time. I was out in Afghanistan last in November 2019 and I got around to see our people there, and also to meet with our political leadership out there and then also our military leadership, General Miller. When I was meeting with General Miller I told him our commitment remains true to them, right, we're really a support element, and I told them that no matter where we have forces out here, we will continue to have geospatial intelligence support. If you modify your posture so that you close bases or consolidate bases, we will be there right with you, and if you're drawing down your numbers to the point where you need us to pull back and provide that support from the horizon, we're prepared to do so. So I'm confident in our leadership and our commanders out there to look at the situation and best posture the force, working with international partners and with the Afghan forces themselves, to get the job done.


MISCIK: Next question.


STAFF: We'll take our next question from Bobby Inman.


Q: Admiral, you've already touched a little of this from Jami's question, but would you tell us a little bit more how has the availability of commercial satellite imagery altered or even enhanced how you go about your operations?


SHARP: As I said, I looked at the list, and it's a group of luminaries, and obviously retired Admiral Bobby Ray Inman is one of those individuals and is a personal hero of mine. So, sir, it is great to have you here in person and to get to hear your voice, and I hope you and your family are doing well. You know, it's funny because sometimes I get asked this question on, hey, are you concerned about commercial capabilities, and do you think that's gonna put you out of a job because they can do what you do. I tell people right away; I said I'm not in competition with the commercial industry. If somebody has the capability to help me show the way, if they can do something where I can concentrate capacity elsewhere, I'm all about that. So what it's bringing additional ways that we can know things that we don't know, and I'm really excited about the capabilities that are being developed right now and in the future. And not only the capacity, you know, in the ones and zeros in the products themselves, but also a potential for growing capabilities and in services that are offered. And I've been excited, really excited about this in my last job where I was not only Office of Naval Intelligence 30, remember because you came and visited me. But also, I was the director of the National Maritime Intelligence Integration Office (NMIO). And in that job, the direction I had was to build a global maritime community of interest, not further defined. And I always like to stipulate not further restricted, right, make sure we are sharing information well with that community of interest, and to be an advocate for resources. And I think partnering with the commercial industry is a key component of us being able to achieve what I described as those mission imperatives and the moonshot. Right, there's a big commercial dimension to this. And it's an exciting world. Thank you, sir.


MISCIK: Operator, if I could interject for one second. Admiral Inman's question reminds me of another potential issue, which is a new way of having to look at deception. With things coming from the commercial world, in particular about deep fakes and other types of things, has that been a focus as well for you?


SHARP: It has, and I'd say we're at the initial stages of that journey. So we had stood up an office a couple of years ago to help us start to look at this, and we're using the term GEOINT assurance, and it's looking at a full spectrum of things like where do we have vulnerabilities from being sensed is one dimension to it, but what you're talking about here is how do you have confidence in your ones and zeros? It really depends on what you're going to use those for as well. So there are different degrees of what your concern may or may not be in there. The four mission imperatives that I talked about that are necessary for us to be able to achieve the moonshot and for us to remain the world's best premier GEOINT force are these: one is making sure we can still deliver assured positioning, navigation, priming, and targeting. Having confidence in how we know where we are, that precision aspect, and then the other three are really interconnected and interdependent. It is figuring out how you do collection orchestration, how you synchronize collection from all these systems of systems that are out there. On the analytical side, it is modernizing how we do analysis, and continually leveraging machines to do what machines do well, and focusing on the human mind. And then the third aspect that really is connected to this is being very deliberate on how we deal with data, and a data strategy and being deliberate about how we handle it, how we have confidence in it. And I say those three are interconnected because when you get individuals who are really smart on collection orchestration with great analysts, along with people who are data-savvy and can code, magical things start to happen. It's really powerful.


MISCIK: Thank you. Operator, next question.


STAFF: We will take our next question from Cynthia Roberts. Please accept the unmute now button.


Q: Thank you very much. Thank you for this conversation. We're supposed to identify ourselves. I'm Cynthia Roberts, a university professor at CUNY, and also last year I spent working at J-5. So, Admiral, I'd like to ask you two parts of the technology question. One is, given the advances that you've mentioned in remote sensing, which are quite helpful for the PMTs you just discussed, can you also say your confidence sense for increased verification, whether it be of mobile missiles or increasing advances in adversaries FSBNs? And on the other side of that, perhaps not such innovative technology, but innovative tactics, how do you see the threat from anti-satellite capabilities? Thank you.


SHARP: Yeah, those are big questions, Cynthia, but I like them. The first on really being smart about how you collect and how you know, and how you have confidence level in what you're seeing that goes to that being very deliberate about having a data strategy as a central aspect of everything you're doing. So that you know where your data is coming from, you have some confidence level in where it's coming to, or you can go verify and validate if and when needed. It's funny because I'm benefiting from some investments from my predecessor where they reshaped some of the workforce and got very deliberate about bringing in data scientists and setting up a DevOps, and being smart about this. One of the individuals I interacted with at one of the commands we had, introduced himself as a data steward for me, and I said, well, what does a data steward do? And he said I work with all the analysts, everybody here, and I look, and I see how they're storing data, and then I help them make sense out of it and store it properly so that they can really get the value from it. And I said, how's that journey for you? Because as he described that, I got this image in my head of those people who go into hoarders' houses and how they help them clean it out. And he said, yeah, that's pretty much what it is. I was earlier today meeting with some of my analysts who help us look at and monitor different portions of the world, and they were talking about how they're doing business differently today than they did five years ago because they have a data scientist in their group with them who has helped them get a handle on their data. And you should see their eyes, how excited they are when they talk about the power of it and being able to actually look at your data over time and space and analyze it so that you can start to use machines to do things that normally was just a manual process before. So I think it's a key component of us evolving as an agency, certainly as an intelligence community, I think, and as a nation.


The second aspect of your question, you know, that's one of those areas where it's becoming more congested and more contested. To me, when I think of space, I go to my nautical roots, and I think that's another global common area where society really benefits from safe, responsible, rule guiding, responsible use of space. What we lack in space right now is those centuries of maritime law, where different nations have worked out the rules and regulations and how to operate up there together. So, the domain just is the domain, and people can use it for good, and people can use it for evil. And I think that the stand up of space force, the stand up of a Space Command, really starts to put us in where we need to be as a nation and helps to lead the way as to what happens in space. Just this past month, I was out in Colorado Springs meeting with the SPACECOM commander, and I mentioned that we have support teams with all the combatant commands. We have an NGA support team that is colocated and embedded within SPACECOM as well, and it was also great to see that they are also leveraging investment in their people and expanding partnerships. So we're at the beginning of a very exciting journey. Thanks for the question, Cynthia.


STAFF: We will take our next question from Seema Mody. Please accept the unmute now button.


Q: Vice Admiral, this is Seema Mody, global markets correspondent at CNBC. I'm curious if you or anyone on your team has had conversations with President-Elect Joe Biden or anyone on his transition team? And, if not, what is your number one piece of advice to the president-elect as he decides on a military defense budget and how to address the challenges related to China on the defense and geospatial front?


SHARP: First of all, as you know, NGA is a Combat Support Agency, so I report to both the secretary of defense and the director of national intelligence. So, as both part of DoD and as part of the IC, we stand by to support a transition as directed. But I think you're probably tracking that both the Department of Defense and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) are following the statutory direction provided in the presidential transition, which requires ascertainment of the candidate by the administrator of GSA prior to supporting a potential presidential transition. So we have not had contact with the transition team, and we are waiting for the ascertainment of the candidate by the administrator of GSA before we do so. I have seen reports on the list of transition team members and, once again, I recognize the names. I've worked with named individuals, and I'm confident in our ability to transition if that's the determination or direction that we're given. As far as advice, I'm not going to offer up any advice here, Seema, but I have been reading the news and looking at some of the things that are popping up and being suggested, and I think that there are a lot of great advisors that will provide that sort of policy advice.


STAFF: We will take our next question from Nick Schifrin. Please accept the unmute now button.


Q: Thanks very much for doing this Jami, and Vice Admiral, thank you. I apologize in advance for asking questions that border on the political, so feel free just to decline to answer. On transition itself, just to follow up the last question, we saw Chris Krebs fired last night. Do you have any concerns about transition moving forward, given that we don't have that GSA announcement yet? And in August 2019, a photo of an explosion in Iran at a missile site was made public. Did that have any impact on your work at all? Thanks.


SHARP: Yeah, I'll take the second question first. That did not have any impact on our work, and I'm tracking what you're talking about there. And I don't know if you knew this, but everybody else that asked a question, their name came up on the screen. I got a great picture of you in front of a bunch of fish, which is awesome, Nick.


Q:  If you can still hear me, that was taken in Kunduz, Afghanistan.


SHARP: Oh, that's awesome. That's awesome. Yeah, on the political side, as you mentioned, I don't get involved on the political side whatsoever, but I'm personally not concerned about anything right now. I will tell you on some of the transition with the acting secretary of defense, Chris Miller. He was actually here in my space on October 22 in his capacity as NCTC, acting secretary of defense. We had a great couple hour session on what he was doing as director of NCTC and exchanged ideas on fighting through the global pandemic and continuing to meet the mission. With the acting undersecretary of defense, intelligence and security, he already reached out. We've already latched up, and he reached out deliberately to me just to let me know if there's anything you need at all, you have an open line to me. So I'm not concerned right now with anything that's going on. And, as I stated upfront in the early session, people should rest assured and know that their intelligence community, their department of defense, is laser-focused on standing the watch around the clock and around the globe and making sure that nobody is taking advantage of what they might perceive as vulnerabilities because they would be mistaken.


STAFF: We will take our next question from Jordan Reimer. Please accept the unmute now button.


Q: Thank you. My name is Jordan Reimer. I work at the RAND Corporation. I'm a former intelligence analyst, and there's a lot of discussion about over-classification, especially in your industry, where there is a lot of commercial technology available. I'm wondering if you could just speak in a little bit more detail. Given this pandemic and how everything has been distributed away from SCIFs towards CAC cards and work from home, is this going to lead to a sea change in declassification or non- classification of worthwhile intelligence-related information? If you could just speak in a little bit more detail about that. Thank you, sir.


SHARP: Hey, Jordan, that's a great question, and you get a gold star for saying sea change, throwing in a nautical reference there. But I do think it has helped us change, and you've probably heard I said if we do this right, we won't go back to doing business the way we used to do business. We'll come out of this stronger, smarter, and better. And we had already envisioned a future for us that had more flexibility and more agility in what we did at the unclassified level, what we did at the collateral level, and what we did at the high-end level, which allows you to establish what I call a cone of sharing. So, at a very broad level, you want to be able to sit around a table and provide the information to support a discussion that is open and frank with partners. We can say, Hey, we're concerned about this, are you concerned about that? We think you should be concerned about it and share it very broadly and freely. You can ask the question, who's concerned about this, please raise your hand, and those raising their hand can stay at the table, and you can break down into a smaller group, and you can share at a different level. And you can keep on breaking down into smaller groups so that those things that you really need to protect, you can do in a very small group, and those things that you need to reveal or you need to talk about openly, you can do very openly. I think that that is much more doable today because of the source of information than it was when I came into the Navy when I started this business. We just need to have some agility in how we're dealing with data, and we've discovered new ways of doing business during this pandemic that really have changed our workflows and how we do things, and how we think about things. I had some nonbelievers in my own workforce when we started this when we pushed them out and got them connected. At one point, I was talking to one of our analysts, and he said, hey, Admiral, I'm one of your analysts, and I was one of your naysayers. I thought I would not be able to do anything valuable from a telework posture, and then he said I was wrong, and this has opened my eyes to a new way of doing things with some agility on different networks.


MISCIK: I think we have time for one last question.


STAFF: Of course, we'll take our last question from Steve Kaplan. Please accept the unmute now button.


Q: Good afternoon, Jami, nice to see you. Admiral, I have a question regarding the difficulties you may be facing. The challenges of any role, such as you have, are substantial, even enormous. I am curious about what are the difficulties, if any, perhaps, of personnel recruitment these days. The technology breakthroughs that just don't happen. The seven thousand folks who are working remotely, I'm doubting they're able to be in the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIFs).  Can you tell us a bit about what are the things that perhaps not drive you crazy but which really make the work worth doing?


SHARP: Steve, that's a great question, and I don't think you'll be surprised to hear this, but we really aren't having any problems doing recruiting. There are enough just patriotic individuals who are really attracted by the mission and doing great things for their nation and are highly motivated to do so. You mentioned the remote telework and what we're doing. Some of what we had done from a foundational perspective, you think, you know, building maps and charts and things of that nature, we were taking unclassified data and moving it to the high side, doing work, then moving it back down to the low side. So there were things that we could do differently that we reimagined and are very successful. So I think our workforce has been excited by this re-posturing in that they see they might have a world available to them, some flexibility available to them in government, where they can do things a little differently, and the industry is already going this way. And we're in competition for talent. So I think when we show that we can offer something, more flexibility, that helps them strive for a better balance between work and life, that's going to make us more attractive. So, good news story here, our future is bright. We are still attracting tremendous talent.

I was mentioning to Jami before we got on this, last night I was doing a webinar, and it was co-sponsored by the National Military Intelligence Foundation and the International Spy Museum, and it's an annual banquet, and they give awards to military members, active and reserve, and then they also give out scholarships. And I got to hear from these individuals who are university students receiving scholarships and interested in coming into the intelligence community. I always heard this before, but it is true, our future generation is much better than this Admiral. [Laughs.] They are far smarter than I ever was or had hoped to be. They are motivated to do what the nation needs us to be doing. It's incumbent upon me to make sure they have the resources to do so and to remove barriers that prevent them from being successful, and to create the environment where they're attracted to come to do this business and stay with us. Which is so important for us to transform how we do business. Thanks, Steve.


MISCIK: Well, one of the Council's key rules is that we start on time and we end on time. So, in closing, let me just say that until today I did not realize that November 18 is GIS day, which is geographic information systems day, and events take place all over the country, and the world and NGA plays a role in that. And I don't know if they give out badges for participation, but I think several hundred members of the Council now qualify as participants in GIS day.


SHARP: That's great. It is GIS day and geography awareness week.


MISCIK: Week, all right. Well, thank you so much, Admiral, for taking the time to meet with us, talk with us, and share your insights. We really appreciate it. And thanks to all the members. I'm sorry we couldn't get to all of your questions but thank you again for your participation.


SHARP: Thank you so much. I've enjoyed it. Enjoy the rest of your day.

Top Stories on CFR


NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The war in Ukraine marks a new era of instability in Europe. Countering Russia’s efforts will require a stronger, more coordinated NATO.


After the rise of Chinese power during the 2010s and failed U.S. policies in the Indo-Pacific, the United States should renew the Pivot to Asia and place the region at the center of its grand strategy.*