Sometimes the best state secret isn’t a secret—it’s a person.
Stephanie O’Sullivan spent the bulk of her career keeping secrets for the United States Intelligence Community, and even as she rose through the ranks to become one of the IC’s highest ranking leaders, she always maintained something of a low profile – even in her most recent role as the Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence (more affectionately known as the PDDNI).
Her most recent title doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and unless you’re an IC junkie, you probably aren’t sure what a PDDNI even does.
“A good analogy is an orchestra conductor,” O’Sullivan told me when we sat down in 2016. She described her primary responsibility as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s top deputy as leading a team tasked with getting “all the parts playing together and getting the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts.”
The DNI’s ‘parts’ include 16 different intelligence agencies; 17 if you count the ODNI itself. With so much talk of late about “restructuring the ODNI” or, as some have suggested, getting rid of it altogether, O’Sullivan strongly supports the value the organization provides. It was created out of the 9/11 Commission Report, as a step toward making sure that the types of indicators that could have tipped authorities off to the 9/11 attack would never be missed again.
“They all want to be the hero who finds the key piece of information – who stops the threat, who stops the plot,” said O’Sullivan as we sat in her boss’ office chatting. “They’re all working as hard as possible to do that. What the DNI does is to find where you can put things together and where the pieces fit. To me, the part that is going to give us an advantage for the next decade or so is the ability to know what our whole set of capabilities are and to bring them all to the game.”
And here’s how the field on which that game is played shapes up. Every year, the DNI presents a Worldwide Threat Briefing to Congress. Last year, DNI Clapper opened the session by saying that he had never seen things this bad. (Keep in mind, we chatted before last October’s allegations of Russian meddling in the U.S. election.)
“It’s been a steady ramp-up,” said O’Sullivan, “and it’s not tied to any one particular triggering cause. The biggest thing I look at is the instability around the world, which makes our job of providing indications and warning, really hard.”
Political instability, terrorist organizations such as ISIS and al Qaeda, the aggressiveness of Russia, the assertiveness of China, the ambitions of North Korea, and understanding the motivations behind Iran’s actions are all key concerns for her. Add cyber and increasing concern over biotechnology threats, and you get an idea of her workday priorities. Every. Single. Day. Coordinating and sharing information on all of those threats among the various agencies that can benefit from the information has been her number one priority. But that’s about to change.
Image courtesy of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
O’Sullivan announced last year that she would be leaving her post after the election. It’s not a political statement – she announced her decision months before the November election took place – but she’s leaving some serious challenges on the table.
On the personal side, there are a couple of things she isn’t going to miss once she turns in her keys. She won’t miss being called across the river (the ODNI is nestled just up the street from the CIA in Virginia) and up to Capitol Hill to testify before Congress. While she’s quick to say that she understands the importance of the oversight that Congress provides to the democratic process, she’s also refreshingly honest in sharing that as a career Intelligence Officer, she doesn’t like getting pulled into what can often be described as the “politicization” of the IC mission. We’re all, sadly, well versed in that debate given recent events.
She also isn’t going to miss the practical side of her early morning wake ups. Helping to lead the ODNI meant six years of waking up around 4 a.m., reading the news to see what happened while she slept, and then getting briefed on the “traffic,” the highly classified threat reports that you and I don’t ever get to hear about.
There are a couple of reasons why O’Sullivan was the right fit for the right job at the right time.
It’s good that she has a background in science and engineering. She’s spent considerable time during her tenure thinking about and seeing first-hand, the incredible pace of technology and how rapidly it’s changing the threat environment. Hopefully her successor won’t take long to get up to speed on how U.S. enemies are often using off-the-shelf technologies to carry out their mission of disruption. We require an Intelligence Community that can understand the threat fast enough and the technology needed fast enough, to be effective.
It’s also good that she is a woman. You wouldn’t know it by watching the news or the Hollywood portrayals of women who live this life, but they fill a huge part of the ranks within the IC. Most have been middle level-ranks – those of the hardworking analysts who obsess over missions (like the one to find bin Laden, for example) and, more so in recent years, those of the operators who are required to leave their families behind in order to do their job. If you ever wonder what the “sacrifices” are when people talk about sacrifices made by the workforce, it’s most often a separation from their families due to long hours or assignments overseas.
Recent years have seen strides in recognizing the importance of women in the IC, but it’s taken a hell of a long time to get there – something that O’Sullivan has long been aware of. A few years ago, when we first met, she recounted to me how Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) stopped a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee in order to point out the significance of the gender of the witnesses at the table.
“She stopped the hearings; that’s never happened before,” recounts O’Sullivan, as Feinstein wanted to point out that the committee, headed by a woman, was being briefed by three female leaders of the IC. For that moment, the women were running the show.
O’Sullivan notes that there has been progress in placing women in leadership positions. “Betty Sapp was the deputy of NRO at that point; she is now the director. Letitia Long was the director of NGA, she’s retired, but we have Sue Gordon – who’s brilliant – as the deputy there. DIA just announced a new deputy and she’s a woman.” (She’s DIA Deputy Director Melissa Drisko, who previously served as Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence, with the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and with the CIA.)
O’Sullivan feels strongly that the IC still doesn’t have the right balance of representation for either women or minorities in some key IC positions, though. “It’s particularly acute because a lot of our occupations are in STEM fields,” she says, referring to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “A lot of our work is based on technology, if you think about NSA and NRO in particular. And it’s really a challenge to get people to consider those fields.”
Sue Gordon, the currently serving Deputy Director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency is one of the female leaders who excelled at science and technology as well as a host of other things. She is among many who give O’Sullivan credit for paving a path and helping others navigate it. “Without equivocation, Stephanie is the leader we all aspire to be: brilliant, fearless, selfless, and human. Her impact on the work and the women and men of the IC is almost hard to quantify because it is so much a part of what – and who – we now are.”
Like a lot of the men and women who were at the CIA on Sept. 11, 2001, O’Sullivan refers to deep guilt as she describes her best day on the job, the day of the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. “Probably because we so acutely felt on September 12 after the attack, that we had failed. I know I did. What did we miss? This was a mission that we took to heart,” she said.
Many of the people I talk to in the IC during the course of my interviews share that exact sentiment. They see their responsibility to protect as a deeply personal mission. It motivates them to fight through the damaging impact of misleading headlines or political slams. Hopefully we won’t be distracted from the idea that our best state secret is the people we trust to protect them.
State Secrets is a national security-focused column written by Suzanne Kelly, CEO & Publisher of The Cipher Brief.