What Keeps DIA Director Flynn Up at Night

Stephanie Gaskell, Defense One
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Stephanie Gaskell, Defense One
Nov. 21, 2013, 3:02 a.m.

With cy­ber threats, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of weapons of mass de­struc­tion and ter­ror­ist groups spread­ing to more parts of the world, there’s plenty of things that worry Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, the head of the De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency.

But what keeps him up at night is that ter­ror­ists find a way to at­tack us be­cause U.S. agen­cies and oth­er part­ner na­tions didn’t share in­form­a­tion.

“There’s al­ways go­ing to be a crack. There’s al­ways go­ing to be a gap,” Flynn said Wed­nes­day at a Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion for­um. The en­emy, he said, is “smart, savvy, cun­ning, guile, whatever word you want to us, and they will find the holes no mat­ter how many re­sources we put against it.”

“If there’s something that keeps me up at night, it would be our in­ab­il­ity to work to­geth­er, as a group of na­tion­al se­cur­ity, in­tel­li­gence, law en­force­ment, that na­tions that we part­ner with, to­geth­er. If there’s a crack out there, it could be in one of those places where some­body de­cides we can do this alone. And if there’s one thing that we know, we can­not do any of this alone.”

Flynn said tech­no­logy only ex­acer­bates the threat. With 500 mil­lion people on Twit­ter and a bil­lion on Face­book, he said, there’s “a lot of noise.” In­form­a­tion passes so quickly now, even 140 char­ac­ters can be a threat.

“We can­not sit idle in our worlds of the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies and the sys­tem we have and not pay at­ten­tion to that. We can’t go, ‘Well, you know, it’s not prop­erly sourced.’ We have to be really smart about: how do we ap­ply the open world to a world that’s really a closed-loop sys­tem?”

Flynn, who has led the DIA since last sum­mer, cau­tioned against prop­ping up groups like al-Qaeda. “Are they really talk­ing to each oth­er, are they fin­an­cing each oth­er, are they shar­ing ideas, are they shar­ing les­sons? There’s a thick­ness to that that I think gets mis­rep­res­en­ted some­times,” he said. “I learned at the be­gin­ning of my time in the mil­it­ary: Nev­er make an en­emy 10 feet tall. Be­cause I think as good as we are, we’re not. And so they’re not 10-feet tall. They are de­feat­able as an or­gan­iz­a­tion. What we have to un­der­stand is what’s the true nature of it? What are the un­der­ly­ing con­di­tions that al­low them to thrive in these en­vir­on­ments where we see them thrive?”

Flynn may worry. But he said he’s long been in­spired by a man he knew back when he was a life­guard at the beach, be­fore join­ing the mil­it­ary. The man would ar­rive early in the morn­ings and sift through the sand look­ing for lost items. “”This guy al­ways found stuff,” Flynn said, be­cause the man would watch where people sat on the beach. “He would be very ob­ser­v­ant. And the guy ac­tu­ally made a liv­ing do­ing it.”

The ana­logy? “We have to really be very ob­ser­v­ant of the things that are im­port­ant to us and then ruth­lessly pri­or­it­ize where we put that sand bas­ket to sift for the right types of in­form­a­tion that we need. And even when we do that, even when we pull that sand bas­ket up and we shake it, it is ac­tu­ally what I need, does it mean what I wanted it to be, is it the gold ring or is it just a shiny rock?”

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