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National Security Conversation
by Chasen Thoennes. Defense Intelligence Agency
December 6, 2018

Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, Jr. participated in a wide-ranging national security discussion in September 2018 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan, nonprofit policy research organization based in Washington, D.C.

September 17, 2018 - Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen Robert P. Ashley addresses the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. (Defense Intelligence Agency photo by David Richards)
September 17, 2018 - Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen Robert P. Ashley addresses the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. (Defense Intelligence Agency photo by David Richards)

The conversation spanned topics ranging from conflicts in Iraq and Syria, and great power competition with China and Russia to the role of emerging artificial intelligence and machine learning within the intelligence profession. Ashley began the event by describing DIA’s core function of providing foundational military intelligence to the warfighter and senior leaders, and how DIA’s intelligence fits into the National Defense Strategy.

“When I think of lethality, it’s not just dropping bombs on a target,” Ashley stated. “It’s a well-trained analyst. A well-trained physicist. We enable those kinetic strikes.”

Ashley then discussed the importance of allies and partner nations, and how DIA and the Department of Defense should rethink the way allies and partnerships are typically viewed.

"The warfighter wants us to push the envelope regarding sharing intelligence with partners,” Ashley said. “We shouldn't say 'Who do we have the authorities to share with?' We should instead think 'What is the problem we’re trying to solve?' And then decide to who needs to be under the tent."

When asked about the Syrian conflict and the actions of Russia, Iran and others, Ashley stated he wants to see stability and responsible actors in the region. He explained Iran and Russia are seeking to posture themselves to influence the future Syrian government and establish a permanent presence in the region. Ashley also warned that the U.S. must remain vigilant in its fight against ISIS and al-Qaida. That both groups and their ideologies still remain a threat.

On the topic of Russian interference and misinformation efforts, Ashley stated Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to be “Welcomed to the great power table with the U.S., to be a decision maker.” He also noted the Russian use of misinformation shouldn’t come as a surprise.

“This is something in Putin’s DNA as a former KGB agent, to push out disinformation,” said Ashley.

When addressing China and its efforts expand military reach and capability, Ashley highlighted that Chinese military improvements have largely come from studying the U.S.

“The Chinese have watched us intently since Desert Shield and Desert Storm,” stated Ashley. “They have watched us over the last couple of decades and mirrored some of the things we’ve done… they are trying to build like-capabilities.”

However, Ashley emphasized it is not guaranteed China becomes an adversary. He also pointed out that increases in size and amount of equipment do not necessarily correlate to a more capable and lethal military, particularly since China has not fought a war in almost 40 years.

When asked about the role of technology and the future of intelligence analysis, Ashley stated he sees artificial intelligence and machine learning as important force multipliers for the intelligence community. Ashley said he envisions technology that enables him to dig through massive amounts of data, both classified and open source, and find the important pieces. However, no matter the amount of technology, at the end of the day, an analyst using tradecraft, knowledge, intellect and understanding makes the final decision.

The discussion then shifted gears to DIA’s efforts to recruit and retain qualified and skilled officers. While acknowledging the private sector’s ability to typically pay more, Ashley offered his thoughts on what makes a career at DIA uniquely rewarding.

“Just imagine if you got up every day and what you did was ensure the hopes and dreams of 320 million Americans,” Ashley explained. “It’s that sense of service to the nation that brings people in.”

Dr. Seth Jones, Harold Brown Chair and director of the CSIS Transnational Threat Project, and Juan Zarate, chairman of the Financial Integrity Network and CSIS senior advisor, moderated the conversation.

DIA's mission is to provide intelligence on foreign militaries and operating environments that delivers decision advantage to prevent and decisively win wars. Nearly 50 percent of DIA's 16,500 employees are stationed outside Washington, D.C., at national intelligence centers, combatant commands, combat zones and defense attaché offices worldwide.

U.S. Department of Defense

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