The new director of the Defense Intelligence Agency is approaching his dream job with eyes wide open, valuing people over technology and expecting a future that holds more intense demands for intelligence.
Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn became DIA director July 24, as well as commander of the collocated joint functional component command for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance that is part of U.S. Strategic Command.
“If there’s a dream job for me, this is it,” Flynn said during an interview with American Forces Press Service.
His vision for the agency, the director added, “is to operationalize the capabilities that DIA brings to bear, for the defense community and specifically in support of our combatant commanders – [the] commanders and organizations that are spread throughout the globe in support of our nation’s defense.”
DIA personnel are deployed in 139 countries around the world, with more than 500 serving combat forces in Afghanistan.
“People don’t always know that some of the men and women who are out there are even from DIA,” Flynn said. “They show up and they live and breathe with the units they’re [supporting], doing an intelligence analysis mission and helping commanders understand what’s happening in their environment.”
The general began his own career as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C. He has served in command and staff positions, with multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, including as director of intelligence for U.S. Central Command and director of intelligence for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
DIA, Flynn said, “has an enormous responsibility for defense in general and certainly for providing intelligence support to our war-fighting forces. It did quite a bit for me personally and certainly for the units that I was a part of over the last … couple of decades.”
In an open letter to the men and women of DIA, the director said DIA’s analysis must be timely, responsive and relevant to the needs of customers that include the military services, and increasingly international, domestic and private-sector partners.
“We must strengthen our human intelligence collection against strategic defense targets growing more difficult to penetrate, while fully incorporating counterintelligence. We must continue to integrate science and technology to enhance our operations,” he wrote.
Flynn is a graduate of, among other institutions, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and School of Advanced Military Studies, whose graduates are informally known as Jedi Knights, a reference to lightsaber-wielding members of the Jedi order featured in “Star Wars” films.
He’s also earned an honorary doctorate from the Institute of World Politics and three master’s degrees, including a Master of Business Administration degree in telecommunications. But people are his real focus.
“The best technology to invest in is the technology between the ears,” he said. “Regardless of what we have in terms of technology, we have to invest in the people … so we’re leading technology and technology is not pulling us along.”
Such an investment, Flynn added, has everything to do with innovation – allowing people to take risks in thinking and in trying new ways to present information, to bring ideas forward, and to allow people freedom of action to try new things.
An innovator himself, Flynn is known in the intelligence community as one of three authors in January 2010 of a report published by the Center for a New American Security that was critical of intelligence in Afghanistan.
“Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan” by Flynn, who at the time was the senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Marine Corps Capt. Matt Pottinger, and DIA senior executive Paul D. Batchelor, was based on discussions with hundreds of people inside and outside the intel community.
The report recommended sweeping changes for the intel community, including moving from a focus on the enemy to a focus on the people and culture of Afghanistan, or any country where U.S. forces are deployed.
In the lead-up to writing the report, Flynn said, “what I began to realize is that we’re not seeing the … trees [for] the forest. We’re missing something here.”
What was missing for the intel community, he said, was a focus on the total environment rather than the threat alone.
“There was not a sound understanding of what the environment was like, so I think that in our cultural awareness, our language capabilities, our insight and training … prior to forces entering in this case Afghanistan, we were missing something in a big way,” Flynn said.
“The fact that we have brought laser focus to that issue has made us smarter, more aware, more tuned in” to a process that is also relevant to the pivotal events occurring now in North Africa, Syria, Yemen and in several African countries.
The intelligence community has also matured in other ways, Flynn said, and has come to see in itself a much greater role operationally.
The operational community sees this integration of intelligence and operations in a way that’s much different now from 10 years ago, Flynn said. As DIA goes forward, it will look hard at its integration with the operational community and with the combatant commanders, the general added.
“Intelligence at the edge is better than intelligence at the center. … We have to be in the field, [and] we’re already taking a hard look at how … we place ourselves in a much more operational footprint globally to be more responsive, to be more agile, to be more flexible in the kinds of needs that our nation [will have] here in the coming decade,” he said.