As Susan M. Gordon sits before the Senate Intelligence Committee for her confirmation hearing to be the next Principal Deputy Director to the Director of National Intelligence, it’s difficult to ignore the enormous expectation being placed on her shoulders.
For starters, the role of PDDNI (as its more affectionately referred to within the Intelligence Community) is an enormously influential position. As the right hand of the head of the organization created after 9/11 to make sure all sixteen U.S. Intelligence agencies do a better job of sharing information, the position is among the most instrumental in the IC. But if confirmed, (and she’s widely expected to breeze through the process), Gordon will inherit a messy global threat landscape and an even messier political landscape at home.
So, here’s a picture of the battlespace she’s entering, where challenges, both internal and external, abound.
First, a little context: multiple sources report that her future boss, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, remains in close contact with President Trump on a daily basis -mostly because the President actively engages in his morning briefing. That’s a good thing – but even Coats himself told Congress in May that he’s been spending more time in the Oval Office than even he anticipated. So, what does that mean for Gordon, who will be navigating a range of both external and internal challenges?
Coats laid out the external challenges clearly during May’s Worldwide Threats Hearing: cyber attacks, emerging and disruptive technologies, the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence – used not just by the U.S. but by its adversaries – the ethical and national security implications of genome editing, terrorism both at home and abroad, weapons of mass destruction that range from Russia’s development of a ground-launched cruise missile to China modernizing its nuclear forces, to North Korea’s ongoing missile tests, space and counter space, transnational organized crime, the list goes on.
Internally, well, the threats hit much closer to home. The very future of her expected new office, the ODNI, is rumored to be in the sights of President Trump, and in particular, Jared Kushner, amid allegations that ODNI has become – well – too bloated. For months now, Steve Fineberg, the CEO of Cerberus, who was reportedly brought in by Kushner, has been holding meetings all over Washington, DC with former and current intelligence officials in hopes of leading an official review of how efficiently the IC does or does not operate. Multiple sources say the meetings last for hours, and attendees are told to come prepared to spend some time. But while Fineberg is – according to the same sources – highly patriotic and passionate about lending his expertise to the mission, he hasn’t been granted an official role and Dan Coats is reportedly adamant that any internal review be led internally. Navigating that political storm will be a prime task for a woman who has spent a career working with, and understanding the Intelligence Community but also understanding where it fails in its ability to pursue innovative approaches to problems.
But the issue of who leads an IC review might be the least of Gordon’s worries in a heated political environment fueled via Twitter. Keep in mind that Gordon would be leading an intelligence community that is badly bruised. The President – intentionally or not – has repeatedly slapped the IC in the face, particularly by his public questioning of the IC finding that Russia did indeed carry out an information influence campaign during the 2016 presidential election. And don’t think for a moment that the IC isn’t equipped for revenge via a series of leaks that have come out over the past several months.
Gordon might be just the woman for the job, though. Said to be widely liked by members of both political parties and deeply respected by her colleagues in the IC, she brings a reputation of being a straight shooter, albeit one sometimes criticized for trying to bring about change within government agencies not well-equipped for it. Gordon is known as an innovative thinker, evidenced by her comments at The Cipher Brief’s Annual Threat Conference earlier this summer, when she told a public-private crowd that the government has to be more innovative in its approach to threats, which is a tough thing, she said, because “it wasn’t actually designed for that.”
But the American people should consider Gordon well equipped for the challenge. She has spent the bulk of her career at the CIA, where she most recently served as Director of the Information Operations Center while also serving as the CIA Director’s chief advisor on cyber. She previously served as Director of Support, where she was responsible for worldwide security, logistics, finance, information technology, and personnel for the Agency’s domestic and overseas positions.
Gordon started at the CIA in 1980 as an analyst in the Office of Scientific and Weapons Research – the part of the CIA that’s responsible for technical analysis of foreign space and missile systems. She then went on to the Agency’s Directorate of Science and Technology, and later was named the first Director of the Office of Advanced Analytic Tools.
In the 90s, she was named special assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. That’s when George Tenet – the Director at the time – tasked his team with finding a way to bring more innovative ideas inside the walls of Langley. Gordon cast her eye on Silicon Valley and became a driving force behind what would become a new approach to public-private partnership for the development of information technology. Today that company is known as In-Q-Tel.
Hopefully all of that will help Gordon navigate the new challenge of assisting Dan Coats in leading the IC, and in navigating a new war of ‘tweets and leaks.’