National Intelligence Folly: How a Tragic Unsolved Murder Led to Billions of Dollars of Program Fraud, Waste and Abuse Part 7

In parts 1-6 I outlined some of the high-level details regarding how the government typically dealt with some of the bigger issues that happened in one little sphere of the government bureaucratic world I was working in, during the timeframe I’ve been covering from the ~1970s through about 2010. The timeframe is of significance because it spans what could be termed the major revolution in data and signal processing where legacy analog methodology was being supplanted by digital capability, albeit, in very small incremental steps that continue today.

And yes-I know-everything is digital today, analog is so yesterday’s news, digital signal processing is so ubiquitous that your iPhone can talk to your fridge and also be used to tell your electric vehicle in the garage to cool off to 68 degrees starting at 0645 for a 0700 departure. Much like the Naval Post Grad professor who loved telling students that soon their lives would be 100% directed by machines-particularly if they drove to school that day and responded to any traffic lights or signals-my premise is that in this period there were very few leaders who truly understood the challenge and magnitude of these intelligence community (IC) changes, and fewer leaders still who seemed to appreciate the unique demands these changes insinuated on much of the legacy architecture in place at the time.

The reason strong and comfortable “in their own skin” leaders are so critical in times of great change like the transition from the return film bucket, analog processes with analog to digital conversion era, to the pure digital process where an electro-optic imaging system was built and every piece and process in the system-what we often refer to as tasking, collection, processing, exploitation and dissemination (TCPED)-needed to be updated and optimized to work end-to-end, is these leaders have to lead the upgrading of their business processes in a ruthless, impatient way that recognizes how delays are debilitating for the enterprise they run, but particularly-in the case of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency/National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NIMA/NGA), the decisions they make and the innovation they push has a tremendous impact on the communities they support and the efforts they lead. And it is a leadership, not a management effort, often characterized by significant ambiguity-that still must be decisioned, with often “gut” determinations in the absence of knowledge or data.

Many don’t appreciate the difference between leaders and managers. Two clearcut examples include the fact that you can’t “manage” someone to put themselves in harm’s way for a cause greater than themselves at risk of death: that takes leadership and that is why the military is different than a regular job, and “special.” Leaders don’t think that much about popularity or how their workers see them-that does not make them callous, or unfeeling-but sometimes the best thing a leader can do is provide an honest appraisal that may result in hurt feelings: leaders do so with a clear conscious in the interest of mentoring and helping out subordinates: and at some point, subordinates learn to appreciate such frank and honest feedback from bosses.

The best analogy from a business standpoint is what was-and had to be done-when Blockbuster was a dead man walking but didn’t know it yet, as NETFLIX and the idea of streaming video, bandwidth, massive storage and viewing on demand became a thing that revolutionized the home movie industry. Many thought the local Red Box pickup and drop off construct would endure forever. When is the last time you saw a Blockbuster store: why???

What made this revolutionary period so different from other dynamic changes in capability where the introduction of digital imagery and softcopy exploitation burst upon the scene? I think a user survey we administered during a test of a system in Germany in February 1990 told everything we needed to know about culture and habitual tradecraft and the failure to inculcate the facet of this capability and nuanced changes to users. We administered a survey to new and experienced image interpreters to get their experience and impressions of hard copy versus softcopy exploitation, and a surprising trend that emerged was that the image quality of the hard copy imagery was judged to be better-sharper-than the softcopy, digital imagery. The imagery was an average or National Imagery Interpretability Rating Scale (NIIRS) 5.5 and was the same image in hard copy, that was a print of the digital pixels made from a duplicate positive (Dupe Pos) print of the pixels into film.

When queried on why analysts believed the hard copy was better quality, the near unanimous response was because when you zoomed all the way in on the 240-millimeter stereoscope (capability of resolving 240 lines per millimeter,) the softcopy imagery would degrade into blotches and unrecognizable shapes and colors, whereas the hard copy film was still somewhat recognizable. I repeated that survey a number of times over the years and almost always had similar results. You can get the same effect with a pair of binoculars, but nobody assumes that when it goes out of focus there is any other cause than being out of focus. With digital imagery at some level of magnification you have literally crossed into pixelation space, where you are looking at the base element from white to black along the 255X or more variations of grey. Every time I administered the survey, I knew we would get different results-but we never did: hardcopy was always rated as a higher NIIRS.

We did a Joint Chiefs of Staff, Tactical Exploitation of National Capabilities, Special Project (JCS TENCAP Special Project,) Joint Theater Missile Defense (JTMD) experiment and exercise at Vth Corps Headquarters in~fall 1990. Part of the experiment to look at the translation capability of the Air Defense Systems Integrator (ADSI) was canceled when the PATRIOT (Phased Array Tracking Radar Intercept on Target) Batteries and Battalion Tactical Operations Center at Darmstadt, 32d Air Defense Artillery Brigade, executed a Flexible Deterrent Option in support of United States Central Command and deployed to Kuwait (out from under us.)

Another objective of the effort was a dynamic tasking or “skip echelon” national tasking effort in which we attempted to collect a national priority that skipped United States European Command because it was a high priority, agreed upon target criteria that would process directly in DIA Collections (DC-5) through the DIA Departmental Requirements Officer (DRO.) During the prep phase of the exercise, the Vth Corps Collection Manager did a test message-clearly labeled “EXERCISE, EXERCISE, EXERCISE” to test the system and collect national imagery against a Scud Missile System (Maz 543 SCUD Tel) that was spotted in Letzinge Heide Training area by a TR-1 (U-2) radar mission. To everyone’s shock, amazement, surprise and dismay, the target was collected: after all, it was an actual good target. We also had some TR-1 radar imagery and both products ended up being brought to the I.G. Farbin Building by Chief Warrant Officer David Jefferson, from Det Hahn, Metro Tango, to Vth Corps HQs, for the G-2 to view the resulting product.

It was somewhat of a disaster from two standpoints: number 1, the Vth Corps G-2-COL Kelly, was not an image interpreter/analyst and we had trouble convincing him it was an actual MAS 543B Transporter Erector Launcher: he dismissed it as “blobology.” Number 2 the European Command Collection Manager (LTC Kay Fry and Cmdr Ed Abbott) was furious and ballistic: the collection had cost EUCOM one of their collection priorities and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t such a big deal as was the knowledge of who the Dynamic Tasking/Skip Echelon effort was “skipping:” they had apparently figured it out a bit late but decided to change that part of the exercise immediately.

Which is a bit of a detour from my point, but this discipline has become more and more complicated as time has gone on and I may not be able to convince you that what I see is what I say it is-but that is why you pay image interpreters the big bucks (not really.) All to show how different the game is with some of the new spectral and radar capabilities.

The point I’m belaboring here is the firing of any organizational leader like a Clapper or NRO Dir Jeff Harris, for what amounts to political reasons, can have a very bad and demoralizing effect on the workforce and result in years of neutral idling and sideways movement, particularly when the replacements are political choices-like Keith Hall, although he was a very effective leader and motivator, or Clapper’s replacement, Adm Robert Murrett, who was not that comfortable around civilians, conducted himself like he was still the senior intel guy rather than the Director, and often lacked aggression in pursuing agency issues with his pentagon bosses.

One of the telling and memorable moments early on with Adm Murrett was when he came out to speak to NGA’s top internal leadership class, Leading Culture by Design. We had been told that he was going to share some leadership philosophy, some insights from his career and in general get to know our class of about 22 people. Some of us had already worked with him a bit and somewhat knew that the type of interaction we had been told simply was not his style. When the time came, he walked into the class, sat down in front, looked over to his right where I was sitting, and said “go.” That was exactly what I was expecting, so I asked him “Adm Murrett, you recently signed out our agency goals and it was surprising to see some 13 of them: most organizational effectiveness professionals recommend no more than 3-5 top level organizational goals to ensure focus and achievability. Can you talk about the process and the expectation for us as leaders?” He said, “Lloyd and the other civilians came up with those goals and I approved them: next.” Hahahaha-but that was his style.

The firing of NRO Dir Jeff Harris was a tragedy that could not have come at a worse time for the NRO, being on the threshold of hitting their pace on the FIA procurement. He was a talented, trained engineer in the business of this business, as opposed to somebody good at the budget, politics or schmoozing: although he had that, too. By the time of his firing in March 1996, the FIA procurement had barely gotten going, being conducted in three phases (A, B, and C) with a neckdown of vendors at each gate resulting in significant teaming by smaller, special skilled contractors/venders who had no chance to win the main contract.

Most believed it was a dead lock certainty that Lockheed Martin was going to win the contract award, as they were the only US company who had built the type of large, high-capacity optical satellites that the community was expecting in order to meet the burgeoning set of requirements being put together by the government community team. There was just as much complication in the FIA ground architecture as there was in the satellite constellation, controlled via an integration function that came to be known as the Mission Integration or “Mind.”

A community group of experts led by the NRO and the relatively newly flagged NIMA Central Imagery and Tasking Office (CITO) conducted myriad architecture studies and modeling and simulation to produce requirements set that consisted of nearly 20 parameters that would later form the key performance parameters (KPP) for the system evaluation.

These parameters were soon formulated into what became a set of thermometers that charted the initial, threshold, and objective requirements/capability as FIA was built out and the constellation was populated over the years of the program. Many would later point to aggressive over-expectations in terms of requirements for eventually making it impossible for the winning vendor to succeed, but that is nonsense, as the validation of this approach came down the road when the new systems coming on orbit proved fully capable of achieving these benchmarks-and more.

Which may sound a bit complicated, but if you think of something like revisit at a certain quality level, you only get so many bites at the proverbial apple/target at the required parameters with a single satellite and Kepler/orbital dynamics, so many of the revisit specifications only went “green” on the thermometer chart depicting the KPP at the initial, threshold and objective level and that might take at least three optical satellites to achieve, particularly for a high priority point revisit task or something like area coverage, where the objective might be as many as 150K square nautical miles of area coverage and 20K points.

I will get into a lot more of this later but suffice it to say when the DCI and SECDEF fired Jeff Harris and Jimmie D. Hill, that was a black day for the NRO, and it signaled problematic times as the FIA procurement played out.

End of Part 7

14 November 2022

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