Meeting

Malcolm and Carolyn Wiener Annual Lecture on Science and Technology With Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Frank Whitworth

Wednesday, March 27, 2024
Handout/Reuters
Speaker

Vice Admiral and Director, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, U.S. Navy; CFR Member

Presider

Partner, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP; Former Secretary of Homeland Security (2013–2017); Member, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations

Malcolm and Carolyn Wiener Annual Lecture and Malcolm and Carolyn Wiener Annual Lecture on Science and Technology

Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), Vice Admiral Frank “Trey” Whitworth, discusses the future of the NGA and how the agency is addressing new threats, strategic defense competition between the United States, China, and Russia, and how emerging technology is shifting the defense landscape. 

The Malcolm and Carolyn Wiener Annual Lecture on Science and Technology addresses issues at the intersection of science, technology, and foreign policy. It has been endowed in perpetuity through a gift from CFR members Malcolm and Carolyn Wiener.

JOHNSON: Anyway, I’m Jeh Johnson, member of the CFR, and today’s meeting is one in a series of Malcolm and Carolyn Wiener Annual Lectures on Science And Technology. This lecture series addresses issues at the intersection of science, technology, and foreign policy, and is generously endowed in perpetuity through a gift from CFR members Malcolm and Carolyn Wiener, who are both here. Please welcome them as well as their family for sponsoring this event.  

Now to our star attraction. Vice Admiral Frank Whitworth is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and is the eighth director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. That’s basically satellites conducting aerial surveillance, for those of you who might not know. Admiral Whitworth has spent almost all of his career in various different roles in the intelligence community. He is a graduate of the Naval War College. He has been an intelligence officer at various commands including the J-2 at the Pentagon. Those who know the Pentagon know what that means. He was basically responsible for providing intelligence to leaders at the Pentagon, to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He was on the Joint Staff as the J-2, so to speak. And perhaps coolest of all he was the senior duty officer in the White House Situation Room at one point. 

Admiral Whitworth is here on what I think is a noble and worthy mission: to raise awareness of the NGA, to raise visibility—that’s not a pun—of the NGA and what it does so that you simply don’t hear about the NGA from David Sanger—whose sources are pretty good; I think he’s part of this program virtually—the movies, social media, or various conspiracy theories. Certain topics will, obviously, be off limits—anything that comes close to being classified or anything about any particular pending criminal prosecutions.  

This meeting is on the record as opposed to most meetings we have here at the Council. So let’s get started. I will conduct Q&A with the admiral till 1:00, and then at 1:00 we’ll begin to take questions, OK, and we will stop promptly at 1:30 as I was instructed to do so everyone can go back to their day jobs.  

OK. Admiral, welcome. Welcome to New York and thank you for being here. Please just tell us what the basic mission of the NGA is.  

WHITWORTH: NGA is both a combat support agency—and I’ll explain what that is—and a member of the intelligence community. It’s an intelligence agency, combat support agency. I’m a member of DOD. Our people are paid by the Department of Defense as well so they are members of the Department of Defense.  

The way that we’re organized is we’ve got about 9,000 people working in northern Virginia, about 3,500 people working in the St. Louis area, about 500 people doing a very important job in Denver, and then we’ve got over a thousand people who are at all of the combatant commands.  

Think U.S. CENTCOM, U.S. EUCOM, U.S. SOUTHCOM, et cetera. There are eleven of them, and they’re all breathing the same air as those commanders listening to what he or she needs, what he or she is prioritizing in terms of real-world operations, and then translating that into the tasking of the constellation of satellites and the prioritization of the exploitation of what is being imaged.  

I’m the functional manager in the intelligence community for GEOINT—geospatial intelligence. So that means characterizing, identifying, recording, disseminating the value that comes from especially imagery but think anything that’s in the visual domain. That’s fair game and that’s a lot of data.  

So as a combat support agency every single day we sit down, and while we are responsible as an intelligence agency for producing reports and advantage for the president, the Cabinet, and lots of consumers in the Washington, D.C., area, we also have a responsibility to ensure that those combatant commanders and those fielded forces are getting an advantage either for the preparation for combat or, in some cases, in the conduct of combat.  

We are a very flat organization. At 8:45 every single morning, I sit down with the team and we go over the intelligence that has accrued over the course of the evening. And all of it, of course, from our perspective is going to be GEOINT, but it’s going to involve a cross section of other INTs—and so think SIGINT, think HUMINT. But the majority of what we talk about and disseminate, of course, is GEOINT. 

And so we’ll have all of the people who are at those COCOMs. We’ll have people on the Peninsula and the Koreas. We’ll have people who are at sea. Literally, I’ve talked to our deployer at sea and the Ike carrier support group—carrier strike group.  

And so the only rule of engagement we have for that particular meeting is if we’re wrong about something you have to disabuse us of that notion and if you have a question then you have to dive in, and it’s actually a very fast-paced one hour of review not only of what happened but also what’s the next product that we need in order to provide an advantage either for the president or for those combatant commands.  

JOHNSON: Before I get further into that, NGA has a physical presence in various places in the continental United States and I know you are particularly proud of your presence in the St. Louis community.  

Could you talk about that for just a moment? 

WHITWORTH: I’d be happy to. A lot of people don’t realize that there’s a major facility of the federal government and of the IC and NGA in St. Louis, in middle America, and it’s actually when you think about the role of what we do—and we’ll talk a little bit about targeting and we’ll talk about warning and we’ll talk about safety of navigation—and it’s in that navigation field especially that our deepest roots are based when we used to incorporate by name the Defense Mapping Agency.  

There was a combination of the Defense Mapping Agency with something called the National Photographic Interpretation Center. That ultimately became NIMA and then we became NGA. 

That defense mapping role was, largely, occurring in St. Louis and we’ve never lost touch with that community. To wit, about a decade ago we realized we needed a new building. The building we’re in is beautiful. It is old. It’s around the banks of the Mississippi. That can be a problem from a flooding perspective. It’s on a fault line. It’s not upgradeable for IT. We needed a new building. 

So the decision was whether to build a new building in St. Louis or to go with kind of pressing the easy button and going over to Scott Air Force Base in Illinois where you already have infrastructure.  

After very meaningful discussions with the city we determined that we wanted to keep being neighbors and a centroid for intelligence and service in the St. Louis area, and that precipitated $1.7 billion that we’ve been investing in a new facility that we will have those 3,500 people, give or take, occupy in the next year and a half.  

It’s real. It’s in an area of St. Louis, about a hundred acres, that is not necessarily heavily resourced and has not been heavily represented but it’s still important.  

And so the idea here after that decision was taken is, OK, obviously, we’ve got the support of the civic organizations and of the mayor and of the local government. We’ve got the support of the national government. Industry is going to start getting involved. Academia—where are they—and this discussion really started to blossom.  

And a really important philanthropist actually got involved, a man named Andy Taylor, and he really believes in St. Louis and he believes in this mission and the prospects for STEM and growth and bringing in academia. 

And so scholarships started to be founded and a Taylor Geospatial Institute that actually takes eight universities that should actually be competitors going for that talent and they collaborate when it comes to geospatial, especially the earth sciences and the STEM that goes into knowing this Earth and precision and geomatics, and I could go on.  

So the vision here is as good neighbors the child that’s in that area of St. Louis who sees all these cars going in every single day into a fenced area—if that child says, is there something important going on in there and is there something I can do, the answer is yes. There are scholarships available for you and you, if you apply yourself, can work to the betterment of national security.  

JOHNSON: So how good is your capability compared to, say, what’s available commercially to the average American or somebody in high tech? It’s a question that people ask, I’m sure. 

WHITWORTH: I do. I get the question, and we love commercial availability of data and we call it the imagery data because it is. But make no mistake, when you’re talking about national technical means and you’re pitting it against commercial the United States likes to keep an edge.  

I typically do not answer in terms of resolution. That’s something that we’re going to probably keep to ourselves. But we like to keep an edge. But I have a saying, and this goes back to one of my old mentors. He used to say the same thing—we just want it all. And if there’s an advantage because of additional coverage brought by commercial coverage then we want that.  

And so I think that that’s probably the best way I can answer that question is we always keep an edge with national tech.  

JOHNSON: OK. As you know there was—in the days during the evacuation from Afghanistan in 2021 there was a U.S. strike on what we believed was terrorist activity near the gate to the airport and we hit—basically we hit the wrong vehicle. The secretary of defense ordered a review. From your perspective, are there lessons learned from that incident or that type of incident? 

WHITWORTH: Always. I’ve been in the targeting business my entire career to include several tours in Afghanistan and what motivates me about this question and that situation is that unlike what you’re seeing in the application of force by the Russians in Ukraine where it appears that it’s somewhat unbridled and certainly undisciplined, not necessarily well directed, not necessarily paying attention, anything like proportionality and necessity, distinction of protected facilities, we choose—after all the thousands of munitions over the course of twenty-plus years we choose to concentrate on those munitions in a self-defense scenario and how to get better from it, and it shows how the United States is never satisfied when it comes to this principle of distinction.  

I would submit that most Americans are reared to understand necessity, proportionality, humanity, not necessarily distinction. The principal distinction is how to determine that we have a combatant as opposed to a noncombatant, an enemy as opposed to a non-enemy, and certainly, you know, if you’re talking about deconfliction of blue forces that has to be a given. 

I have a coin that I give to people who are really, really good performers and I have chosen for that coin to say NGA: Vanguard of Distinction. The essence of targeting and most all targeting, in my experience, is inherently geospatial because you’re talking about an effect at a place on the Earth at a particular time.  

But make no mistake, distinction is what NGA does best and NGA yields more positive identification calls than any other agency, certainly, in the United States and, I would submit, on Earth.  

JOHNSON: So as you talk I’m sure many people in this room have their minds turned to the situation in Gaza right now. First of all, can you—what can you tell us about intelligence collection sharing with our international partners and specifically the state of Israel?  

WHITWORTH: I’m very proud of what NGA has done to uphold the mandate that the president set for us after the events of October 7 where he ensured that the United States would provide an advantage to the Israelis to ensure that they could defend themselves against Hamas. We’ve never let up on that mandate.  

I am also proud of the role that NGA has played in telling the whole story and looking at the entirety of Gaza and Israel and the situation to the north, of course, but especially in Gaza and to ensure that our decision makers know everything that’s going on.  

And so we call—I use a baseball euphemism sometimes where we just call balls and strikes. Sometimes these are binary calls. And so it’s important that we not just call strikes. If you got a ball you got to call a ball. If you got a balk you got to call the balk, and we tell the whole story.  

And by telling the whole story of the conduct of what’s going on in Gaza, I really do believe—and I will defer to the president and I’ll defer to the secretary of state. But when we hear things that ultimately become statements of policy or at least statements of concern about the conduct of what’s happening in Gaza, it reflects, I would submit, that they’re reading our products.  

JOHNSON: We learned in the last few days, according to published reports, that our intelligence community warned the Russians about an imminent terrorist attack there. How common is that type of intelligence sharing among those who on the surface are our adversaries?  

WHITWORTH: I’m not going to submit that it’s all that common, but this is another one of those situations where responsible nations do responsible things. And so, if a responsible nation like the United States has information that could help another nation, no matter what their political bent—protect innocents—then we take that responsibility seriously.  

NGA’s role in this if there is a geospatial dimension to helping warn we’re going to be involved. And so that’s another thing. I’m going to be proud of the role that NGA and the IC writ large plays when it comes to the safety of life, whether it’s at sea or on the ground, wherever it is—the safety of life.  

JOHNSON: What role does AI play in your mission?  

WHITWORTH: A big one. So to back up just a little bit on the things that are happening inside of NGA there are really three words that I would ask that you just keep in mind and maybe even memorize—targeting, warning, and then safety, especially the safety of navigation.  

Targeting we’ve already talked about—an effect on the ground identifying positive identification, what’s going on there, and are you sure that you have distinguished. Warning is actually a larger mission because it’s so global. As you’re trying to establish through our visual domain what’s baseline behavior, baseline activity, as opposed to what’s anomalous and what might we need to be concerned about or—and warn about.  

And then the safety issue—safety of navigation. Planes need to fly into airports, especially military aircraft, and they need to know that their FLIP charts are correct and they know when something is 300 feet or higher and we attest to that.  

Ships need to know that the data that has gone into the chart that they’re using, whether it’s electronic or in some cases old fashioned like, that they need to know that it’s right. We take responsibility for that as well.  

And then there’s a relationship on the navigation piece, and I’m going to just call it precision, to the targeting piece. How is it that we know that when a munition is sent somewhere that it’s specific to what we’ve made that positive identification call to?  

So when you think about the GPS constellation—and this has more than just military application—we have responsibility for the baseline of precision for GPS. WGS 84—the World Geodetic Survey 1984—that’s NGA’s responsibility to uphold. We actually came up with it and we actually maintain that.  

So we have responsibilities for understanding gravity, we have an understanding of the Earth and the topography of it, the changes in the baseline of mean sea level, et cetera. 

So now to get to your question on AI. That’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of data, more data than any other agency. We move more ones and zeros, just moving ones and zeros, than any other agency, not to mention store it. 

So for the good news. In the last fifteen years we’ve seen I’d say about a fourfold increase in the amount of terabytes coming from space—and I’m rounding—and yet as Americans I hope that you’re motivated to hear that our budget has not gone up precipitously.  

So that’s a good news—you know, I’d love for the budget to go up but, you know, we have been able to do that, handle that increase in data, because of efficiencies that are actually a form of AI. It just wasn’t called AI, and it’s called computer vision.  

Think about an algorithm that you’re training over the course of time to do detections—is that a T-72 tank, yes or no. And so we have used that computer vision over the course of the last fifteen years.  

Now for the bad news. In the next nine years, exponential is too strong but substantial increases in the amount of data coming in. Just think about a line that goes much more—you know, just going to be much steeper. How do you handle that?  

AI is very, very important to the future of our mission. This is why we have been entrusted with something that was called a project and it’s now a program of record called Maven. Maven is actually related to targeting. It has been very helpful for us to process and train algorithms, and we have multiple algorithms now to ensure that we get those detections that help us get to positive identification and ultimately dissemination.  

On warning we’re going to move to a program called the ASPEN. ASPEN is going to be a much bigger problem but a good one to take on to ensure that we take all the structured observations that establish baseline, ensure that workflows are made more efficient because of AI, and then ultimately ensure that we alert, and then think about a human-machine team, that we make the alert, we make the alarm if there’s something anomalous.  

So that’s where we’re going with AI. We have other approaches. You know, we’re going to be doing a digital globe mapping effort that will use AI. We already use AI in our study of the ice. We use AI in some crypto or cybersecurity methods.  

So there are multiple ways. But at its core is handling all that data and ensuring that the human gets an advantage, and who better to train the algorithm than the best in the business? So if you hear about somebody saying something about auto target—automatic target recognition ask yourself, well, who’s training that algorithm, and if it’s not somebody who’s been doing this for, you know, a few reps and sets, as we say—and I’m very pleased that I sign forty-five-year letters of appreciation. We’ve got people who’ve been—I just signed one yesterday for a retirement at forty-six years. That’s the advantage when it comes to training algorithms. 

JOHNSON: So let’s spend a moment on the—NGA has a domestic aspect to its mission. It supports the federal government’s domestic roles, law enforcement and so forth. Could you spend a minute talking about that?  

Our board chair David Rubenstein likes to ask blunt questions. So if he were here he’d ask are you spying on Americans?  

WHITWORTH: We’re not spying on Americans.  

JOHNSON: OK.  

WHITWORTH: If there’s one thing that is baked into the code of every intelligence professional writ large in America but especially I’ll speak to NGA it’s that we don’t spy on Americans. Intelligence oversight rules prevail.  

What’s unique about NGA, though, is that there are situations where America needs help, homeland type help. Think storms, earthquakes, anything like that. 

JOHNSON: Wildfires. 

WHITWORTH: Wildfires. And so under both Title 10 and Title 50 and we operate in both. That’s one of the nice things about being NGA is that we’ve got authorities in both. If we get a legal request from an agency like a FEMA, like DHS, et cetera, then we will pursue helping, especially with commercial imagery, provide an advantage.  

So let me give you a couple examples. Hurricane Ian—we knew Hurricane Ian was going to be big. We could see it coming in. We have two trailers and two teams that are dedicated to man those trailers, get them to where they’re supposed to go with a lot of communications as well as generators on board, places to sleep, waterproof paper, given the factor you’re going to be dealing with a lot of water and flooding, et cetera. 

We sent them to Fort Myers. We actually arrived the same day—the first trailer arrived the same day that FEMA arrived, right before landfall, and we helped find places for the search and rescue teams to go and it was a great choreography between search and rescue and for us, national intelligence. 

Once it gets more into the assessment—think, you know, if it’s like insurance or something like that—we’re out. OK. That’s when it’s end of mission for us.  

We had somebody who was involved with that actually then get mobilized to Maui to help with the wildfires. And I’ve got a picture of our maps, and a whole group of the search-and-rescue personnel, and the grids, ensuring that they knew where to search based on a lot of the work that we did there—again, a very legal request for either mapping or imagery, all commercial. 

JOHNSON: Presumably you have your own lawyers at NGA? 

WHITWORTH: Oh, we’ve got some of the best lawyers I’ve ever met. I mean, I’m sure there are plenty of great ones in here and I’m talking to one. But I’m really impressed with our attorneys and they know the law very, very well and they will always review these things before we execute any sort of homeland support.  

JOHNSON: So you may not be able to answer this. Does NGA have the capability to identify through surveillance a particular individual?  

In other words, could you say, oh, that’s Jeh Johnson—I recognize his bald head—on Park Avenue and track exactly how I’m going to get back to my law office on 6th and 51st? 

WHITWORTH: It’s almost a resolution question. I’m going to be careful and tell you that if we could we would. (Laughter.) 

JOHNSON: Honest answer. OK.  

WHITWORTH: However, the behaviors—and this is where there is a difference between a still and full motion video. Full motion video, which has been something when you’re searching for an individual, especially a terrorist—full motion video gives you some advantages and behaviors. 

JOHNSON: Right. 

WHITWORTH: And we’re pretty good at that, too.  

JOHNSON: OK. It is 1:00 and we’re going to take questions from this very informed audience here and I’m going to start with Patricia Duff.  

Q: Thank you so much for your presentation. Thank you. Patricia Duff from the Common Good.  

I have a question about drones. Obviously, they’re being used in Ukraine and they are, obviously, a weapon that must be used in your work.  

Could you talk a little bit about what the future is for drones? I mean, it looks like it also could be a real threat since these things can be very unsophisticated and used in a very effective manner.  

WHITWORTH: I appreciate your question, so much so three years ago I put into a speech and I’ve reiterated—and this is a personal opinion. It’s kind of an academic opinion. But I put out that I think that we’re in a reluctant revolution in military affairs—reluctant RMA is what I call it. 

Where you’re talking about now—the RMA that I would identify is exactly what you’re citing, which is the uncrewing and unmanning—it’s not gender specific but the uncrewing of a lot of forms, not all, of power projection, in some cases defense and how will that be treated. 

And so you’re right, we’re seeing the importation of some drone technology into Russia and it’s not helpful to the situation in Ukraine. Thinking into the future as to our role there this is, you know, a good news story if you put it in the perspective of what the deputy secretary of defense has been putting out with regard to the Replicator program.  

I submit—if you’re not familiar with Replicator it’s increasing by a large margin the number of autonomous vehicles the United States will have and I submit that we’re chipping away at our reluctance of this RMA accordingly.  

So with that being the case I’m very much dedicated and our agency is dedicated to a strong relationship with the Replicator program and if you’ve heard of DIU, the Defense Innovation Unit, ensuring that if there are GEOINT advantages for that program or any drone program, especially on defense but on offense if that’s what is needed, then NGA is going to be there. We’re going to be part of that, again, to ensure that the best of breed that we have for identifying and PID-ing those—positive identifying those enemies against and making sure we have distinction, that that’s baked into what’s carried on that autonomous vehicle.  

JOHNSON: Let’s go to a virtual question from our virtual audience.  

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Glenn Gerstell.  

Mr. Gerstell, if you could unmute your microphone.  

Q: Yes, I have. Thank you. Can you hear me?  

OPERATOR: Yes, we can.  

Q: Great. Thank you very much, Admiral. 

Could you talk a little bit about the vulnerabilities of our satellite-based systems both in terms of anti-satellite weapons in space as well as cybersecurity risks and, for that matter, as well as ground stations? Just how vulnerable is the entire system that you rely on?  

Thank you very much.  

JOHNSON: Did you hear his question? Vulnerability of satellites. 

WHITWORTH: I appreciate this question. Obviously, there are so many walks of life that are dependent on what is provided in space so the fact that we have a Space Force I think speaks to the enormity of this. 

I’d like to tell you that we recognized at NGA the importance of space, so much so that we changed our motto. Our motto used to be very terrestrial. It used to—if you listened or read the motto it seemed like we were just concentrating on looking down at the Earth, and so what we did is we added the words from seabed to space.  

I went to the chief of space operations at the time, General Raymond, and I said, are you good with that? He said, absolutely, we’re going to need you to ensure that we can distinguish good behavior from bad behavior in space. 

And so that’s part of our motto now, and I’ve got people who do amazing things relative to behaviors in space. What’s hard is to tell you how, OK, because now we’re getting into a very delicate area that I’m not comfortable going into. 

But I can tell you right now that you’re right, this demands people who do this for a living and it’s not—and I’m going to tell you that the imagery that they review isn’t necessarily the easiest stuff. So I’m really proud of what we do in this regard.  

JOHNSON: OK. There was a question back here originally. No?  

OK. Yes, ma’am? 

Q: Hi. Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, longtime journalist. 

To what degree do you interact with Elon Musk and Starlink, and what’s your view of his inevitable involvement in war in Ukraine because of Starlink? 

WHITWORTH: I wouldn’t—because I’m not in the hardware business I would have no interactions with Mr. Musk. I would probably defer that question to NRO.  

From just an American perspective and a Ukrainian perspective, obviously, the provision of communications to Ukraine, obviously, has been I think well documented in the press. But it’s not my role to have an interaction with his organization.  

JOHNSON: Good answer. Yes, sir?  

Yes, go ahead. You’re next. 

Q: I just wanted to—I wanted to—hi, Max Boot from the Council. I just want to ask— 

WHITWORTH: Yeah. We went to the Balkans together. 

Q: —a fast follow-up on Elon Musk more generally. Are you concerned the extent to which the IC and DOD are reliant on SpaceX now for a space launch, for broadband communication satellites, and so forth, given the fact that Elon Musk is also the president and CEO of Tesla, whose largest factory happens to be located in Shanghai—so very dependent on China—as well as somebody who propagates a lot of pretty unsettling and crazy conspiracy theories, and according to the Wall Street Journal has also been reported to be a user of illicit pharmaceuticals? 

WHITWORTH: Yeah. Probably a question better for someone else. Not my bailiwick.  

JOHNSON: OK. Yes, sir? 

Q: Hi. I’m Tim Ferguson, also a journalist.  

I’m hoping I could get you to put a score on the relative visibility that our U.S. surveillance has on its state adversaries, so Russia, China, Iran, North Korea. Can you score that with a metric? So, obviously, I’m thinking about— 

JOHNSON: You mean nation by nation? 

Q: Relative to each other. I am getting at whether we know very much about North Korea or not.  

WHITWORTH: If I’m going to do a score that is literally a numerical score that pits one against another, that probably wouldn’t be responsible because then you’d get an idea of some of the priorities that the president set. I think the priorities that the president set in the NDS and the NSS are actually very clear.  

I will say this, though. Our people seem to always find a new gear. This is why, you know, if there’s a tendency to think that we’re just going to go all AI and let the machine do all of this I would caution that the role of experience and the role of, frankly, the industriousness of these people is a force multiplier that we should not ignore.  

So I’ll give you an example. We had our hands full, certainly, with things like the pacing challenge of China, the acute threat of Russia, issues on the Peninsula, Iran, et cetera, keeping tabs on terrorism, and then Gaza happened.  

And you would think in a zero sum situation you just can’t find the capacity to keep such understanding and relate that understanding to our consumers, and we just found a new gear. So I’m going to just respectfully not score, you know, what we’re doing against each other. But I’m going to tell you— 

JOHNSON: I wouldn’t either if I were you. 

WHITWORTH: But we know our priorities relative to the pacing challenge of China and the acute threat of Russia and I listed the others, and we have provided the number of personnel with those trained eyes in that wetware and, obviously, collection opportunities to ensure we adhere to the priorities.  

JOHNSON: You’re getting some good questions— 

WHITWORTH: Yes. 

JOHNSON: —which you bargain for when you come to New York.  

Yes, sir? 

Q: Hello. Brendan Shields, the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  

Good to see you again, Mr. Secretary. It’s been a few years so I want to—so thank you for taking time to chat with us today.  

I have a non-Elon Musk nonhardware question, if we can do some of those. Personnel recruitment and retention—can you talk a little bit about how your entity and maybe military intelligence writ large is adapting to the challenges and the draw from the private sector to ensure we keep the best and brightest and also maintain our excellence in targeting? 

WHITWORTH: No, thanks for that, and this is the—this is something that I’m going to answer from the heart.  

While we have people who’ve been serving forty-six years in some cases, as I mentioned, we have to bring in and ensure we make our number. We cannot take risks here with our—the numbers in personnel.  

We have a very good ground game when it comes to our recruitment efforts, and whether it’s at universities we ensure that we have a very, very good recruitment effort there or within our own defense establishment. Sometimes people want to make a change—we’re pretty good at that. Some conversions from the contractor ranks that’s—you know, that’s something else.  

So our ground game is pretty good. I won’t necessarily say what our number was for last year but we made it. OK. We made our number. So I really appreciate the question. 

As to, like, the skill sets we’re looking for, obviously, a lot of STEM, a lot of IT. But some people forget that, you know, we’re characterizing. We’re putting together pieces of a puzzle, and sometimes people who have studied international relations or political science are actually very, very well suited and especially critical thinking skills and communication skills. 

So I’ve asked the team, because we have some authorities to sponsor contests as one of the ways to generate some interest, I said, hey, you know, I used to be on a debate team and forensics leagues are basically combining those critical thinking skills, rapid dissemination, processing, argumentation, skepticism, cynicism in some cases. Why don’t we have a debate tournament? We’re going to have a debate tournament on April 18, the first of its kind. It will be at the college level.  

JOHNSON: OK. Brendan, regards to Chairman McCaul.  

Let’s go to the virtual audience, please.  

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Esther Brimmer.  

Q: Good afternoon. It’s good to see you, sir. 

WHITWORTH: You, too.  

Q: And thank you so much for this session. Indeed, as we’ve indicated, of course, the expansion of commercial activity in low Earth orbit is one of the major developments of our time. 

May I just ask how the greater congestion does affect your planning and your ability to accomplish your mission? It’s not which company but there will be more companies and many more obstructions in low Earth orbit. How does that affect your larger ability to do your mission?  

Thank you, sir.  

WHITWORTH: Thanks, Esther.  

If the question is about physical obstructions and deconfliction that is actually better asked of the commander of SPACECOM so U.S. SPACECOM and keeping all that straight. I don’t know how they do it but they do a great job of it and we always keep cognizance thanks to that mission.  

When it comes to what is becoming a more populated commercial environment I like that. OK. We cherish that. And so that’s where another ground game is very important, where we have industry days, and we actually reach out to industry, and we seek some of—for us, it’s about analysis. We don’t necessarily buy the pixels. The NRO buys those pixels, the National Reconnaissance Office. But for analysis, we put out a contract request or basically a request for submission, the largest of its kind for analysis. It’s called LUNO A, and you may have read about that in the last month or two and so we’re moving out. 

And so we welcome, you know, the increased population of commercial out there. Does that broach your question?  

I’m hoping so.  

JOHNSON: Other questions? Yes, sir? 

Q: Sir, good to see you again.  

WHITWORTH: You, too. 

Q: Colonel Chris Wehri. I’m the Army fellow visiting here at the Council this year.  

I remember late last year there was a memo that DepSecDef signed talking about some—you know, lowering the classification on certain space-based capabilities in order to enable the force to better interface with said capabilities.  

Of course, I was out of the Pentagon when that happened. I’ve, you know, been up here in New York. But I’m wondering if you could comment on maybe some challenges or unintended challenges associated with that. 

I mean, facilities comes to mind—you know, appropriate facilities at lower echelon commands. But I’m wondering how easy is it going to be to get some of that information down to the lower commands and maybe some associated challenges. 

Thanks.  

WHITWORTH: Right. So I think you’re mainly talking to compartmented access programs and special access programs and where the deputy secretary of defense and the vice chairman now times two—General Hyten was really big on this issue as well—have been advocating for a reduction in the number of CAPs and SAPs.  

It’s not necessarily in my purview so I wouldn’t be able to give you any sort of metrics as to progress. I think I would defer that question to them.  

I will say, though, how we help in our pursuit of commercial data and that is where we can keep some of the more exquisite sources from being touched or exposed by telling the story through commercial, and this was definitely, you know, one of the practices that was used very well in the run up to February of ’22 and the invasion of Russia—where you got to tell the story and the commercial sourcing is very helpful in that regard while you, you know, still kept some special programs—our national technical means—to ourselves.  

So I hope that helps. But I’ll just tell you as to progress I need to defer that one probably to the department.  

JOHNSON: OK. Let’s go back to our virtual audience.  

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Joseph Votel.  

WHITWORTH: Hey, General. 

Q: Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary. Mr. Secretary, good to see you and, Admiral, good to see you as well.  

My question for you is this, is during the global war on terrorism we did a lot to overcome some of the obstacles of collaboration and coordination between the different elements of the intelligence community and the military.  

I wonder if you can provide an assessment of where you kind of see that today in terms of where do you think the biggest opportunities are for collaboration and, conversely, where do you see obstacles popping up in our ability to continue to work well together?  

WHITWORTH: Thanks, sir, and it’s good to talk to you, a former boss of mine, a person who actually asked me to work as the JSOC J-2. So thank you for being here.  

So I think that the precedent—people like you, General McChrystal, Admiral McRaven, and certainly the JSOC side of the House—and what you’ve done also as combatant command has stuck. 

I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to a situation where we’re thinking about reducing liaison officers. Right now there are probably two or three liaison officers. I want to increase. That tendency, which was so strong during the course of, you know, 2001 through present day I don’t think we’ll ever undo that. So I want to thank you for that.  

Numbers—you know, that’s going to be something that will be resource driven and right now I am not reducing our footprints at those combatant commands or at some of those agencies or at other services. That will be one of my last things that I would ever want to do based on the way that we’ve navigated some of the toughest years of the war on terror.  

I hope that answers your question, sir.  

JOHNSON: One more question from our virtual audience.  

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Professor Raj Bhala.  

Q: Thank you so much, Admiral and Mr. Secretary, for this excellent presentation. I’m Raj Bhala, professor, just down from your St. Louis colleagues on I-70 at the University of Kansas. I teach trade law, international trade law, law in literature, and Islamic law.  

My question is about if the parties were willing could your extraordinary human capital—legal capacity, technological capacity—be used to solve two almost eighty-year-old problems, the line of control between India and Pakistan and the line of actual control between China and India both in the western sector and in the eastern sector in Arunachal Pradesh. 

Could you, for example, use what you’ve got to showcase all the different maps across the decades and centuries, show them to the parties, chalk out a plausible solution, see if they would come to the table with, you know, the diplomatic support you would need and then enforce new borders and thus resolve two huge national security headaches? 

Thank you.  

JOHNSON: Thanks for your question.  

WHITWORTH: Thanks for the question. If the DNI—director for national intelligence—were here she would jump at this question because you’re speaking to intelligence diplomacy, which is something that is a real priority for her, and we pay attention to things like this because she’s so passionate about it.  

I love the idea. I want to have the humility of saying I don’t know. I don’t know if it would—if our cartographic expertise and what we could bring to the table in the way of real truth as to what we see on the ground if that would necessarily change things in some of those tough boundary, you know, kind of dilemmas.  

But I love the idea of trying, and without going into any detail I will tell you that there have been at least one or two in the last three months opportunities for intelligence diplomacy that the DNI has specifically tasked us with and she has been running with that football.  

So I love the idea. I’m in if—but, you know, it certainly would be up to the State Department to tee up the opportunity and I really—I will tell you that, you know, I think that our relationship with the State Department this last year and a half has really moved up to a pretty impressive level.  

We get really good feedback from that readership and we take their tasks. Our team is motivated to take tasks if they think that something like peace could actually happen due to our informed eyes and our context.  

JOHNSON: So that brings to mind something that has been on my mind.  

I did an event about a month ago with Avril Haines, the DNI, at the 9/11 museum and I asked her—I said I was not a fan of the creation of DNI in 2002 because I thought it was going to create a whole another layer of bureaucracy within the intelligence community at a moment when our intelligence community needed to be more agile in response to ongoing threats.  

And since then I have watched that structure mature over time and I’ve seen various DNIs who’ve been able to make it work, and in retrospect over the last twenty-two years it does make a lot of sense to have one person who’s responsible for the overall oversight of all the different agencies and the alphabet soup in the intelligence community. You have a common budget and so forth.  

It took the Department of Defense forty years before we got to Goldwater-Nichols in 1986. After its creation how would you—this is more of a policy question, I know, but you’re part of this bureaucracy.  

How would you rate how far along we are in maturing as a functioning well-oiled agile community?  

WHITWORTH: For the IC?  

JOHNSON: Yes.  

WHITWORTH: Specifically for the IC? I’m going to first give a lot of credit to the current DNI. You know, I work for her. I also work for the secretary of defense. Her work ethic personally is unequaled and— 

JOHNSON: NGA is part of the Department of Defense?  

WHITWORTH: We are certainly part of DOD but we are also part of the intelligence community, and so a lot of times I get the question, well, what’s all this founded on? Why do you have these authorities anyway? Why do you—we’ve talked about targeting. We’ve talked about warning. We’ve talked about safety. Why is that codified in the code? 

And I submit it kind of goes to two failures. One was the failure to actually make GEOINT available readily to warfighters after the first Gulf War and that was really where if you read into our authorities it was founded in that. But on the DNI side for Title 50 it’s the failure of integration after 9/11.  

And as you know it was—the theory of the case was if there’s one chief integrator when two agencies, small a, need the information then we stand to have better communication and better collaboration.  

And I would respectfully defer your question to her as the official answer but I’m impressed with the amount of collaboration that has occurred through the community. We typically do ask who else needs to know this. This is why—and this goes back to General Votel’s question—this is why I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to some sort of a stovepiping. 

We’re always going to seek more liaison officers in other agencies, other services, other COCOMs—points of presence to ensure that we’re breathing the same air, listening to the same things, and communicating and collaborating. And I think that you’ve got an enforcer of this in the presence of the DNI and that staff.  

It also speaks to why I was literally spending two hours with the director of the National Counterterrorism Center located at LX, right there co-located with her, as we think through complex issues in the future.  

JOHNSON: OK. Other questions from in the room here?  

We have—yes, sir? 

Q: I’m Ron Tiersky from Amherst College. I’m a layman. I’m not sure this question will make sense but I’ll ask it.  

I assume there are one or two other governments in the world that know you exist and that raises the question—the following question. You’ve been talking more or less all the time about what you can do to them. Could you talk a little bit about what they could do to you—what the problems are that you face?  

WHITWORTH: So your question goes into our vulnerabilities and I won’t talk much about that. (Laughter.) I will tell you, though, that I’ve got people who go to work every day asking that very question and they brief me—I just had a briefing on this yesterday—and we publish on what we perceive from our vantage point as experts in GEOINT where somebody might be taking advantage of our expertise or might be taking advantage of the constellation.  

And we find that the traction within the intelligence community and the operational community is very high for those types of articles that we write. So I’m sorry that I’m not giving you specifics but I am validating your question that we have people that do that for a living. 

JOHNSON: Did we have another question? Yes, one more question from our virtual audience, please. 

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Philip Dur. 

Mr. Dur, if you could unmute your microphone.  

We seem to be having technical difficulties so we’ll go to our next question from Henry Sokolski. 

Q: Sir, can you hear me? Can you hear me?  

JOHNSON: Yes. 

Q: Yes. First of all, you and your agency give me and my staff hope for our government in general. It is a remarkable organization and the people I’ve encountered working there are remarkable.  

Having said that, you and your organization are the sole shining light on consolidating classification guide books so that we can actually get sound classification decisions. 

Is there any reason to believe that your model will be one that the Pentagon will follow and do you see your rationalization and actual use of a guide for classification as a future area for your agency to lead the rest of the government to better automate that whole process?  

I’ll leave it at that.  

WHITWORTH: I appreciate your question. You’re, obviously, an insider. You’ve been reading some things about the way that we put out classification guidance. I wish that our chief of security were here to listen. I think he’d be honored to hear that we’re even talking about this right now. 

You’re right. They put out really good guidance, and to your question I have been in venues where it’s been cited as an example for other elements of both the community and in DOD. So I’m hopeful that we just continue to be a standard bearer—that’s what we all want—but with the humility that if somebody else has a better set of guidance then, you know, we’re going to follow them as well.  

I really appreciate your question. I’m going to—it’s going to make the day of some of the people who wrote that guidance.  

Q: Well— 

JOHNSON: One more question from the audience. Ma’am? 

Q: Hi. Maryum Saifee with the State Department.  

You mentioned in your remarks that you increased collaboration with the department. I’d be curious if there are examples you’re proud of that you’d like to share. 

WHITWORTH: Oh. Well, for instance, I spent a really meaningful hour with the administrator of USAID just this week, and we weren’t talking about what we need, like, right away because, frankly, the team has been delivering, I believe, quite well for what she needs. We were talking about in the next five years. We were talking about where some of the trend lines are for the globe. So that’s just one small example.  

If you’re thinking—I mean, you could go from safety of mission personnel all the way through policy implications and we’re absolutely integrated in all of that. So if there’s a place that’s unsafe—let’s talk about Haiti first as an example—make no mistake that we were providing some advantage to those mission personnel whether they were trying to leave or whether they’re trying to stay.  

And so, you know, I think that’s one example. You could say the same in places like Baghdad. You could say the same elsewhere.  

On the policy side the best example I have is at least what I listen to now just as an American some of the things that Secretary Blinken says and some of the proof he’s able to provide relative to the situation in Gaza clearly has a geospatial advantage to it.  

And so I hope that that answers your question.  

JOHNSON: So moderator’s prerogative to ask the last question, sir.  

You are one of the leaders in the intelligence community, deeply embedded in the intelligence community. This is a public forum. What misapprehension exists among the public about the intelligence community that you would most like to correct? 

WHITWORTH: Your first question on are you spying on Americans is very important to ask. We’re not. And so that’s one apprehension that’s out there. The newest apprehension actually goes back to our discussion of AI and artificial intelligence and this concern of some sort of singularity where we just lose control of our faculties and all of a sudden the machines take over. 

I hope that everyone will, like, believe me when I tell you it’s—for us it’s going to be a human-machine team and that as long as principled humans are touching that code we’re going to be fine. I was asked this question in multiple venues on the Hill, and the principles have to prevail. 

What we have done is established a certification program that is in keeping with the president’s executive order to ensure that, yes, principles prevail for every bit of code that is written that involves artificial intelligence and we’re going to keep that team a viable one and a responsible one.  

JOHNSON: OK. Admiral, thank you for being here.  

WHITWORTH: Thanks, sir. Thank you.  

JOHNSON: And thank you for your service.  

(END) 

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