SPY CHIEFS: “From Navy Analyst to State Dept. Intelligence Chief” – Ellen McCarthy’s Journey (Part 1 of 2)
Andrew Hammond: Hi, and welcome to "SpyCast." I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, historian and curator here at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "SpyCast's" sole purpose is to educate our listeners about the past, present and future of intelligence and espionage. Every week, through engaging conversations, we explore some aspect of a vast ecosystem that looms beneath the surface of everyday life. We talk to spies, operators, mole hunters, defectors, analysts and authors to explore the stories and secrets, tradecraft and technology of the secret world. We are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Andrew Hammond: This is the second installment in our month on spy chiefs. This week, I sat down with Ellen McCarthy, who was formerly the head of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research - or INR - at the U.S. Department of State, one of the 17 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community. It's one your average person on the street doesn't know about but definitely should. Listen in to learn more.
Andrew Hammond: She started her career in the Office of Naval Intelligence as a Soviet submarine analyst but along the way, spent time at places such as the U.S. Coast Guard, bringing its intelligence program into the intelligence community, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, where she was director of security and human capital management, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, where she was its chief operating officer. To learn more about her fascinating career and what she learned along the way about leadership and transformation, I sat down with her for a lovely conversation that will be released in two parts. We discuss how she ended up working in the world of intelligence, the similarities and differences of working for government, nonprofits and for-profits, the value of networks and networking and the future of intelligence and the intelligence community. Get ready for part one.
Andrew Hammond: Well, I'm so pleased to speak to you this morning, Ellen, especially since you've had such a rich and varied career in the intelligence community. But just before we dive into that, that's not where your career began, is it? You were a journalist once upon a time, is that right?
Ellen McCarthy: Absolutely. And even before that, I was a waitress and a bartender and a newspaper carrier. So...
Andrew Hammond: Wow. So how did you first get involved in the world of intelligence? Was it a family connection, a teacher, serendipity? Tell us how you got involved.
Ellen McCarthy: So, you know, Andrew, I would love to say that I've had this deep passion to always work in the intelligence community. But, you know, I really didn't. I was living in Annapolis, Md. I was working at a newspaper. I started delivering - well, I was a circulation manager, and I moved to become a freelance writer and then a reporter. The common theme here really was a person. It was the publisher of the newspaper, Phil Merrill. You know, we really didn't have mentors back then. He was just an incredibly wise and supportive boss. And he told me about this graduate program at the University of Maryland in public policy. And I thought, well, you know, that would be kind of fun. I mean, my whole life has been, well, I'll try that and we'll give it a couple of years. And so he helped me get into this program at the University of Maryland. And it was through that program that I did an internship with the Institute for Defense Analyses on - the subject was depressed-trajectory ballistic missiles as a countermeasure to SDI.
Andrew Hammond: Oh, wow (laughter).
Ellen McCarthy: That's the Strategic Defense Initiative. And through that paper that I was writing, which would ultimately become my thesis, I was working with Naval Intelligence. And in the process of getting information from them, they said, hey, why don't you come work for us? And again, applying that - well, you know, I can do anything for two years. I really - if I had a lifelong goal, it was to own a golden retriever, a sailboat and a house on the Chesapeake Bay.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Ellen McCarthy: But I'll tell you, it's one of those things - once you get into the intelligence community, you don't leave. I mean, you just - you get bitten by this bug and, you know, you never really leave the work of intelligence. And so that's how it happened.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And do you feel that some of your writing skills that you developed as a reporter transferred over into intelligence because writing's an important part of the job, right?
Ellen McCarthy: Yeah, Andrew, absolutely. I mean, there's no question that being able to present information succinctly with a bottom line that is very clear, up front - I mean, those skills absolutely translated. I mean, I think the three major skills any intel officer needs is ability to think critically, to compose and writing messages that are very clear and can make a connection to your customer and then, of course, your ability to present verbally through briefings and presentations.
Andrew Hammond: And is there any ways in which they're different? Because I'm thinking just from what I know of, say, journalism, you - like you say, you want the main part upfront and then the rest of it is, like, explaining it. And there's other ways of writing. But is there - are there any differences that you learned when you went from one field into the other?
Ellen McCarthy: I'll tell you, no. I mean, maybe journalism has changed since I've left, actually, but in the days that I was writing, it was all about sources of information and vetting your sources of information, ensuring that what you were presenting in a news article was true and accurate. And that's very much the case within the intelligence community. Our motto is truth to power. So when you present anything in writing, the expectation is that there is no bias, that it's been vetted, that it's been sourced, that it's been resourced, that your thinking has triangulated your thinking. So you're not just presenting one side to something, that you're looking at all sides of an issue. It's almost the scientific method. In my days in writing, that's exactly the principles that applied. I think many of your listeners would agree that that's not so much the case today in journalism, where a lot is written just to support a narrative that the consumer already has.
Andrew Hammond: And just before we move on to the next question, I just thought to myself there, who were the more stricter editors? When you were at a newspaper, you hear of these old-school journalists who wouldn't accept split infinitives and so forth. And I'm sure in the I.C., the editing and so forth was pretty rigorous, as well. Tell us about that process, as well.
Ellen McCarthy: So it's - that's absolutely the case. And that's probably the most brutal part of whether you're writing as a reporter and as a journalist or as an analyst. It's that editing process. It's almost the red teaming of what you've written, and it's like killing your baby when you see sections of an article getting pulled out. I'll tell you, the interesting difference, though, is, at least from my perspective, while I hated the editing process as a journalist, I actually liked it as an intelligence officer because it meant somebody read what you had written. So, you know, if you had questions or if you had things marked out or you had some feedback, you knew that you were getting to whoever it was, whether it was an editor or your ultimate customer. I mean, the worst thing ever is writing something and then never getting any sort of feedback. Then you're just writing for nothing. So at least for me, that was a major difference.
Andrew Hammond: I feel like this is a really interesting vein that we've struck upon here. So just one additional follow-up question. How is that - being a journalist, you have your byline, you're getting validated, you know the readers are looking at your story, but the work of most intelligence officers is never known. You're never - there's no byline that goes out in the public, by and large. So how is that process from, here you go, world, this is Ellen McCarthy, make of it what you will, to, OK, it's going to be read by some people behind the scenes, but it's never going to see the public light of day?
Ellen McCarthy: Andrew, I'm going to tell you, I'm so glad we went here because I'll tell you that I think you're right. I mean, when I started in the intelligence community, it was the Cold War. And the data that analysts would work with to provide an assessment was, for the most part, captured by national technical means. So it was satellite systems or reporting from humans on the ground or communications intelligence. And we would collect all that data and we would provide some sort of an assessment or some insight to our customer. And in those days - the Cold War days - for the most part, those assessments couldn't be gotten by anybody - by any other resource. There was nothing going on in the private sector that could even come close to whatever information we were providing our customer. And so that's where bylines and being catchy just - it didn't matter because you had such a direct relationship with, you know, in my case, I was working with submarines. And so, you know, it was a very one-on-one relationship.
Ellen McCarthy: Thirty years later, that has very much changed. You're right, we don't - the intel community still doesn't use headlines and bylines to the same extent, although we do use them. But I'll tell you, I think we need to adopt more of those principles because now, we no longer are the only game in town in the intelligence community. I'll tell you, especially on the policy side of the house, there are many other places that a policymaker can go to get insights on any subject. And if you're not connecting with the policymaker, if you're not catching their attention, they can go to many other places. And in some cases, they're going to go to places that may not provide a truthful or an accurate insight. And so I would actually pretend at this point that we maybe need to think more about the use of headlines and sub-headlines. I actually think that the business model for the intelligence community should be that of content provider and not so much in my days when I started, when it was not only providing content but keeping secrets secret.
Andrew Hammond: It's quite interesting what we're seeing play out in the Ukraine, as well. And I just wondered if you briefly had any thoughts on that, the way that the U.S. intelligence community and British intelligence, as well, are saying, you know, prepare for this false flag operation. Here's what the Russian troops are doing. So it's very different from when you joined, right?
Ellen McCarthy: Oh, my gosh. I've got to tell you that I - I've never - I haven't seen this at all in my time in. And I'm so proud of our communities for doing this. But there's always a but. So I would argue that the intel communities should continue providing this sort of insight to the American public or to the world public, that - I mean, that very much shows that the value of the IC right now is providing insights. Again, it's not as much keeping secrets; it's providing insights. And so - I mean, I also say that I would suggest to you and the listeners that a lot of what is being provided is already available in the public domain. So really, it's about - you've got a core of analysts and those who support the intelligence community who are doing everything they can to declassify information and make sure that it gets out, not only to people but also - I mean, to people from both sides of the aisle on this, potentially to get to Putin and Russia. You know, so that shows me that I really do think that the intelligence community needs to maybe flip its business model, that we're really seeing now that the delivery of insights is hugely valuable. It's hugely needed. But maybe what it's taking to get there, it - maybe it can be done a little more easily. And maybe that means that we need to work much more closely with the private sector.
Andrew Hammond: So we're going to look at the narrative arc of your career, which is really fascinating because you're in different parts of the intelligence community, but you also start off as an analyst - junior analyst - and then you end up heading up one of the components of the intelligence community. So just tell us about that first position, the Office of Naval Intelligence. Just when I hear those words, there's so much history. There's so much that comes along with that title. So just tell us, what was it like being Ellen McCarthy joining the Office of Naval Intelligence?
Ellen McCarthy: There was some part of me that had no idea what I was getting into until I got there. But I will tell you that it didn't take very long to realize that this was just an incredible opportunity. As I said, when I went in to ONI, "The Hunt for Red October" was top-chart selling book at the time. My mother actually worked at the Naval Institute, which was the publisher of "The Hunt for Red October." So it just seemed like it would be fun. I read the book, and I said, well, I could do that. In those days, there was not a lot of training. When I got hired, I think it was because I had been a reporter, and I was familiar with some of the information because of my work on my thesis. But there was not a lot of formal training. It was really trial by fire. And I started my job looking at Soviet submarine design philosophy. So I was looking at what the Soviets do.
Ellen McCarthy: I'll tell you that I learned very quickly, though, that sitting and doing research was not my true love, that I - again, as a former reporter, I liked sharing information. And so I moved from looking at Soviet submarine design to looking at Soviet submarine operations. And I actually left Suitland, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and would move down to Norfolk, Virginia, where I would support the operators - so Submarine Forces Atlantic, and the commander in chief of the Atlantic fleet and their submarine capabilities - because I really - I loved the day-to-day interaction with customers. I will tell you that ONI really is the founder of a - of an analytic process called operations intelligence. So op intel. That was birthed with the United States Navy and with the U.K. The concept of putting a puzzle together, looking at imagery intelligence and looking at signals intelligence and finding out what you're missing and then tasking systems to fill in the blanks and then putting together this picture that you then share with a - in my case, it was submarine operators, telling them about what I knew and what I didn't know, and then getting direct feedback. It was incredibly exciting.
Ellen McCarthy: And I'll just want to share that one reason I did leave Naval Intelligence in Suitland and moved down to Norfolk was - again, it was this concept of writing, never knowing where it was going. That's going to be a theme of whatever we talk about going forth, Andrew, because I think, really, there is the value of being integrated with the people who are ultimately using the information that you're providing them that you can't substitute. This concept of sitting in a corner and writing eye-wateringly beautiful intelligence but never having any idea of who's going to use it is not the best business model. But that's how it all started.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And I particularly find the submarine chessboard - if you want to put it like that - of the Cold War really, really fascinating. You know, just by the nature of submarines, they're inherently clandestine. There's an inherently clandestine nature that's built into them. And the whole Barents Sea Murmansk Arctic fleet, and...
Ellen McCarthy: You're right. And I'll tell you that I think, again, while the world is so much more interconnected and difficult today, as opposed to it was during the Cold War, what I and my - and others learned working the Soviet submarine problem back in the Cold War, you can apply to virtually any target. And so you're right. It was just - it was an incredibly rich target. We didn't have all the information. So it really was about hunting for answers in an environment that was not always giving you answers because, to your point, the Soviet Union - very closed system, very protective of information. So you really had to be curious, and you really had to be creative in terms of how you figured out what was going on.
Andrew Hammond: And just briefly, before we move on, you mentioned that there wasn't much training to be an analyst, but was there much training on the history of naval intelligence, the key achievements and landmarks, even failures and hiccups? Was that instilled into people that had just joined, or did you pick it up by osmosis, or was it neither of those?
Ellen McCarthy: You definitely picked it up by osmosis. You couldn't help but not. Again, I am so grateful that I got my start in naval intelligence because I really believe that some of the best analysts are born from the naval intelligence community, given the target you described. But there was very much - because there was not a lot of training, you relied on people who came before you, and you learned from them. And it was very much on-the-job training, which meant that you were also understanding sort of why we got there, how we got there, where this all started, the connections to our alliances earlier in the Cold War and World War II.
Ellen McCarthy: I mean, I'll tell you, that's actually where I grew to love history because I became more curious about, why is it that we're doing things the way we're doing it now? Why are the Soviets the way the Soviets are? And so they're - you know, the naval intelligence community is very much - it's very proud of its history, and it shares that. I became very involved with an organization called the Naval Intelligence Professionals. And, again, going back to op intel, which is a tradecraft that is used by virtually everybody in the IC - so having its start in the Navy, it was a great place to begin.
Ellen McCarthy: In terms of mistakes, did we learn from our mistakes? Oh, my - absolutely. I think that's another reason why I really was blessed to have started at naval intelligence because failure is how you learn. And there was not - it's not as much as it is today. If you made a mistake, it wasn't the end of your career. That didn't matter whether you're an operator or an intel officer. We learn from our lessons. I've got a great story. I was briefing a Navy captain, brand-new analyst. And this Navy captain, who would go on to become a very senior admiral, wanted to go to another country to obtain a submarine for which we didn't need him to obtain this submarine. We knew everything we needed to know about this particular submarine. And it was my job, the brand-new analyst, to go talk to him about this. So you know, I didn't have a customer that was particularly happy to see me. And I went in to brief him. And the name of my briefing was - I can say what it is. It was "Whiskey S.S." by Ellen McCarthy. And we used a viewfoil. I don't even know if anybody knows what a viewfoil is now...
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Ellen McCarthy: ...But that's what we used. And I had capitalized every letter on the title slide. And he - before I even started, he stopped me and said, excuse me, do you spell McCarthy with two capital C's? And I said, well, no. I mean, normally, I use a lowercase C and an upper-class C. And he said, you need to tell me, then, why I need to tell - listen to the rest of this briefing if you don't even know how to spell your name. You know, what I learned from that was how to maintain my composure and, I will tell you, also, to be very prepared. So I will tell you, in the case of the Whiskey S.S., I knew everything about this submarine. I knew the waste disposal system inside and out, and I was prepared to share that with this customer who didn't want to hear what I had to say. And that's something that intel professionals, I think, understand. You have to be prepared to go talk to people that don't want to hear what you have to say, but you have to give it to them in a way that's compelling and useful. And I did.
Andrew Hammond: From naval intelligence, walk us into the next stage of your career because there's so much parts of the intelligence ecosystem that you inhabit for various periods of time. So tell us about the next move.
Ellen McCarthy: So I would go from naval intelligence to the United States Coast Guard. And I'll tell you that was an interesting move. It was after the end of the Cold War. The wall had fallen down. Interestingly enough, we were working on a project that was focused on how the Soviet navy is still operating. And by the time - timing is everything. By the time the wall fell, nobody cared what the Soviet navy was doing. And so I was recruited by the Coast Guard to come back to Washington, D.C., and help them move their intelligence office into the United States intelligence community.
Ellen McCarthy: When I left Norfolk, I had so many of my friends and colleagues. So in those days, you never left. You know, you stayed at O&I, and that's where you would stay for your whole career. So they were a little incredulous that I would ever think of leaving. And a lot of them said, well, why are you leaving? Because the Coast Guard doesn't shoot anything - which I laugh about because in those days, the Coast Guard was shooting a lot more things than the Navy was in terms of counterdrug operations and port security. And so it was a very interesting time to leave the Navy and move up to the Coast Guard in the law enforcement realm because it really was a time when law enforcement was gaining some focus, gaining some resources. And so I'm incredibly happy I made that move.
Ellen McCarthy: And this task of getting the Coast Guard into the intelligence community really would set the course for the rest of my career because it meant not only understanding what the Coast Guard does but understanding how the Coast Guard is supported. What is the role of Congress? How does it relate to the other intelligence agencies? How does the budget work? And so - because you had to consider all those things when you considered, what happens if the Coast Guard moves into this broader intelligence community? And I made those connections, and I learned all about that. And I really now gained a much better understanding of not only how analysts do their job but how they are able to do their job because of resources and acquisition in Congress. So it was a really great move.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And tell us about that process of integrating the Coast Guard into the intelligence community. How did that happen, and why had it not happened before?
Ellen McCarthy: This was pre-9/11. So that's - timing is really everything. And there was a couple of reasons why the Coast Guard hadn't been in the intelligence community. I mean, I think the first reason was nobody ever asked. It was one of those cases where the intel office was - in the Coast Guard was very small. The Coast Guard itself is very small. When I started, it was smaller than the New York City Police Department, roughly 27,000 people, but incredibly impactful in terms of all that the Coast Guard does, whether - a lot of people think of them as marine safety and lifesaving, but very involved in counterdrug, port security, counterterrorism sort of operations. And they had a very small intel office. But the Coast Guard itself was sort of worried about, what would it mean for it if they had an element that went into the intelligence community?
Ellen McCarthy: The Coast Guard is looked at kind of like the Boy Scouts. They have an incredibly strong brand. And so there was some concern that if we go into the intelligence community, we won't be trusted anymore. And so we had to explain to the Coast Guard leadership that right now, you're not trusted. Nothing - wherever you travel, there is some presumption that you are doing some sort of intelligence capability. But - and as a Title 10 military service, as well as being a law enforcement organization, it just made sense that they would have this intelligence capability if, for no other reason, so they could operate on the same platform as all the other services do. So it was not about getting more money, which a lot of people at the time thought it was. It was about being more closely integrated and, you know, as the Navy was getting information, that we could get similar information using similar systems.
Andrew Hammond: And how did you get recruited? Did you catch someone's eye or something - she's got the chops that we're looking for? Or what is it you'd done when you went over to the Coast Guard?
Ellen McCarthy: Timing really is everything. But it really was a person. It was a Navy lieutenant who then was a captain who I had worked with, and he had done a rotation in the Coast Guard. The Navy and the Coast Guard were very, very close at that time. In fact, much of the funding for Coast Guard intelligence was through the Navy. And so he actually had referred me to the civilian who was running the program at the time, Dennis Hager - fabulous former naval officer. And so it really was a person that referred me. And I interviewed with Dennis. I'll never forget that. I was standing out on the beach, and it was maybe a 30-minute interview. And the next thing you know, I'm being moved back to Washington, D.C.
Andrew Hammond: And the transition - what was your role in all of that?
Ellen McCarthy: So when I started, I was working in the policy and strategy side of the House. And, again, this gets to the whole training thing. I didn't - I maybe had been there for three months where I'm learning about Coast Guard intelligence - its history, how it works. And it was when - Dennis Hager that said, you know, I think we should get into the intelligence community. And it was me and a Coast Guard commander and a contractor that would spend the next three years working this problem.
Ellen McCarthy: And, again, I was just so - timing is really everything. And because there - because it was such a small office with not very many resources, they just had to work with what they had. And I happened to be there at the time, and so I just got as smart as I could on budget and Congress and worked with then the community management staff, which was connected to CIA, and got as smart as I could on how we made this happen.
Ellen McCarthy: But to end the story on how did it happen, what I also learned was that after three years of working this problem, Coast Guard recruited a senior executive. Her name was Fran Townsend. She had - she would then go on to become President Bush's homeland security adviser. But at the time, she was running intel oversight at Department of Justice, and she's a rock star. And they bring her in - the Coast Guard. That's a story into itself. And the commandant of the Coast Guard - I believe it was Admiral Loy at the time - talked to her. Or it may have been Thad Allen. But whatever it was, the commandant said to her, I'm really trying to get the intel office into the IC. And she literally picked up the phone and made one phone call to then the head of the HIC, Porter Goss, and we were in. So it was...
Andrew Hammond: Wow. OK. Wow. And from there, tell us about the next step. You go from Naval to Coast Guard. That's a logical progression. Tell us about the next step.
Ellen McCarthy: So I would move to this brand-new office that was being set up called the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, or USDI. It's now USD(I&S). Friend and colleague of mine had - was there - her name was Tish Long - was helping stand up this office on the policy and strategy and budget side of the House. Tish was familiar with what I was doing at Coast Guard and really understood that I now had gotten pretty good at understanding how the budget is worked and the role of personnel and how - we knew one another from our time in the Navy. She was standing up a policy and strategy office.
Ellen McCarthy: And, again, getting to the people part of all of this, Steve Cambone was the new under secretary, and Fran Townsend had moved to the White House to work for President Bush as the homeland security adviser. And I'll never forget, Fran is flying to Saudi Arabia. I think it was her first trip in the Bush administration. And she picks up the phone on the plane and calls Steve Cambone and says, you should hire Ellen. And so between Tish and Fran, I was able to make a move from Coast Guard to USDI.
Ellen McCarthy: And you might wonder, why would I want to do that? And I was learning more and more and more, and I just wanted to apply it to other problems. And so it wasn't that I didn't like the Navy or I didn't like the Coast Guard. It was just now there was this new office whose role it was to bring all the defense intelligence components together to work on the same sheet of music. So it was to get NRO and NGA - the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency - and NSA and DIA and the service intel organizations - it was this - USDI's job was to make sure that their budgets were aligned to requirements and that they had similar capabilities that could scale. And so it really - this was the - this was pre-office of the DNI. So USDI was just standing up to be that element that could work with all of the components together. And I found that to be very compelling.
Ellen McCarthy: And so I moved over to USDI. And again, timing is everything. There was this thing called the WMD Commission, and they had done a review of how the intelligence community operated up till 9/11 and came up with a lot of requirements, a lot of conclusions that would lead to the creation of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which would create a DNI and would really change the way the intelligence community operated. And so working policy and strategy, it was my job to get a better understanding of how this new legislation was going to affect the defense intelligence components and authorities. So I - now I'm learning about Title 10, Title 50, what does the DNI have the authority to do? What does USDI have the authority to do? - and really coming up with a plan for implementing the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act. It's very interesting. History really has suggested that the Department of Defense didn't want to support the stand-up of the DNI, the Director of National Intelligence. That was not my experience at all. The undersecretary made it very clear that we were to - we, the defense intelligence community, was to support the closer integration of this. And it was just to understand how it was supposed to happen. And so I was able to lead that project for Tish Long and Steve Cambone and really come up with the steps to help the defense intelligence community better integrate with the rest of the I.C.
Andrew Hammond: So we'll discuss other parts of your career in the interview but even just at this stage, I'm thinking to myself, what are the advantages and the costs of moving across - transversing different parts of the intelligence community because it sounds like you were doing much more tactical applied stuff and then you began to learn how the operation functions, operations budgeting, links to policymakers and so forth? So you're getting this more strategic picture. I guess there's different skills of thought, but some people get on one ladder, climb as quickly as you can, and stay on that ladder, and that's the best way to get to the top. But it sounds like you're advancing in your career as you're moving across institutions.
Ellen McCarthy: So I took a very different path. That's definitely true. And I'm happy to - and I'm going to conclude with what I think about going deep by staying broad. But what was happening was, as I was gaining insights into how - not only how - what the mission of the community was, but how - what - the business of the community. So how budgets support, why - what's the value of understanding resources and congressional oversight in the role of the private sector? And so I was learning that. And now I wanted to apply what I was learning to other problems in the community. I would go from USDI - actually, I spent some time working human capital at USDI, so now I was gaining understanding about the importance of people and performance management. And I would take that knowledge and then move on to places like the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, where I was running operations. That was a much different job. Talk about taking the tactical and applying it to a 15,000-person agency that applies geospatial information support to not only the entire I.C., to - but to much of government, was a very challenging jump.
Ellen McCarthy: But what that meant was that I not only understood the mission as I sit with you here today. Andrew, I mean, I'm very proud to say that I've supported, I think, four - three of the four pillars of national security, and that I've worked defense operations, I've worked law enforcement and I've worked policy. And I've not only done them in a mission focus as an analyst but also then from the underside - you know, the people, dollars and requirements side. And I don't think - and I've worked in the private sector. So I now understand how companies make money and the role of companies in supporting this for the I.C. And so I would tell you that I think my last job at INR, running the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, was really the culmination of all of those other things. I would portend that anybody that has any desire to run an agency or run anything should not only understand what the product or service is but how you develop that product and service. It's - you know, you can't just be good at the mission. You can't just be the most dynamite geospatial intelligence analyst in the world. You also need to understand acquisition and people and Congress and money and dollars. And I think I had that experience when I went to INR. And I would say that I think everybody who runs an agency needs to have similar - not the same experiences, but certainly similar understanding of not just what you do but how you get there.
Andrew Hammond: Do you think you'll lose anything by moving across?
Ellen McCarthy: So I think that - so this is answering your question the long way, Andrew. Is it better to go deep and stay in one agency or organization and gain incredible expertise, or to move around to six different agencies like I did? And I think the answer is it's both. And, you know, it's so funny 'cause I really - I was such a huge proponent of joint duty, this concept of intel officers moving around and gaining experience and using that experience to ultimately get promoted. And I still think that's a great program. But there's also, having worked in INR, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, I now saw firsthand the value of also having this deep expertise. So at INR, one of the smaller intel elements, our analysts tend to be on their portfolio, whether it's function or region, for an average of 17 years. And you don't see that at any other intelligence organization. They truly are expert at whatever it is they do. And I will tell you that there is great value in having that - in having people like that. Now, I would tell you that those who are even deep still need to get outside experiences. They still need to do rotations elsewhere. But I would say that I now, as I look back on my career, realize that it's really a portfolio approach. You need people who have broad understanding of the entire I.C., and you need people that are very deep experts. And I think the challenge for the I.C. leadership is getting a sense of what's the recipe to have both? And I'm not sure we're quite there yet.
Andrew Hammond: And I'm wondering, as well, if it depends on where you see your future or what your particular role is in the intelligence community because for a leader, you want someone with a diversified portfolio. But if you want someone, say in terms of financial markets, there's, like, the corn harvest expert who's been there for 18 years. You know, that's the person you want to find. You don't want to find someone that's just been on the job a few years, probably. So I'm wondering if it depends on the position that you have or where you see your own future, if you see yourself as a career - I'm going to be the Pakistan person at INR, or I want to be a leader and do different things?
Ellen McCarthy: Yeah, I think that's the beauty of this intelligence community, and I am bullish on it, is that you can be both. And maybe that's a little different, and maybe that's where things are different now than they were when I started. I think with the introduction of programs like Joint Duty, you can be either. You can choose your career path. You can be that deep INR expert, or you can be Ellen McCarthy with ADHD who just wants to try...
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Ellen McCarthy: ...New things and move around. And that may be where the community is different. And I think that, though we really do need to get our arms around, we need to do better in terms of how we manage this incredible resource of our people. Like, what is the percentage of each that you need? It's funny, as I look at my time at various agencies, almost by osmosis does it work out where you bring in somebody who - Tish Long, for example, when she was the director of NGA. Tish came in and I thought really moved the agency forward because of her great understanding of resources and innovation. And I mean, she was somebody who truly was an expert at the business of intelligence, and she set a strategy, and she set a vision and knew how the - knew how to move the agency towards that, how to better exploit commercial imagery. And she really got that and how to make it happen. But then, you know, Robert Cardillo and Admiral Sharp came in. And Robert's an incredible analyst, and Rob Sharp, of course, is an amazing operator who understand the Navy. And it was time to reintroduce to NGA, you know, that it is a combat support agency and that it is an analytic entity. And so they were brought in, which really just enriches NGA and its capabilities.
Andrew Hammond: So tell us a little bit more about some of the other positions that you have. So maybe the logical next step, since we've just been talking about broad and deep and other things, tell us about your role in terms of human personnel management and so forth. What did you learn? What did you do? Tell us a little bit more about that, please.
Ellen McCarthy: When I was at USDI, Jim Clapper would come in as the undersecretary, and he said to me, you know, I want you to run this office, human capital management. And I said to him, I am not the HR lady. You know, why - no. You know, that's not my - I don't even - I'm horrible at my own performance review, and you want me to help others with theirs? I am not that person. And he said, you absolutely are that person, Ellen. And he was right. You know, it's funny, I went in kicking and screaming, but I now look back and realize he was 100% right, that when - you have so many bosses that say people are our No. 1 priority, and they are - they absolutely have it right. The challenge is, how do you make them your No. 1 priority and how are you doing it, and why are they number - your No. 1 priority? And so when I went in to USDI to lead human capital management, my focus was developing a pay for performance system. So it really was about how can you get your civilians compensated for their performance? Very much the way it works in the private sector - you do a good job, you get a raise, unlike the way it tends to work in the government, which is if you sit in your same seat, then you get a raise. You know, the GS scale fights the pay for performance scale.
Ellen McCarthy: But I'll tell you that I learned so much about how - about leadership and performance management and how we pay people and why it's so hard - you know, why it's so hard to change personnel models in the government. And it really gets to people don't like change. People are afraid of change. People don't always trust their bosses. They don't always trust that their boss can assess their performance in a way that truly reflects how they're doing. I think history has shown in the intelligence community that's absolutely a valid fear. I just think about Virginia Hall when she was at the CIA and she got a couple of bad performance evaluations because either she wasn't wearing makeup or because they didn't think that she could do her job. A woman that turned the tide of World War II couldn't do her job. And so when people are concerned in government about their ability of their manager to assess their performance. They're valid in that concern. And yet we still are struggling as a community, as this large government bureaucracy, with needing to change our business model, needing to make performance a critical aspect, needing - because that's how people are incentivized to do more, to bring on new capabilities, to be more innovative. That's how human beings operate. And yet we're still stuck in this system where we don't always trust our leaders to manage us.
Ellen McCarthy: And so I'll tell you that that's what I learned walking out, about how incredibly challenging it is on the people side, even though in the intelligence community the value is our people. We started this interview with that. It's their ability to develop unique insights that can't be gotten anywhere else. And so how do we incentivize people? How do we pay people to be creative, be innovative, to want to move out, to be hungry? I think that's the biggest challenge we face in the government right now.
Andrew Hammond: As someone that's had the career that you've had - government, private sector, various parts of the intelligence community - when you look at it now with the perspective that you have, what are you thinking to yourself, or what are you talking to some friends with over lunch? You know, because as you said, you never quite leave it. So you're probably still thinking about and worrying about it, and...
Ellen McCarthy: Our personnel system, for the most part, is the same as it was when I started. I mean, that's - it's really how you get a job, how you get, you know - and that's really sort of frustrating that from 1988 to 2022, you know, how you get into the IC has not changed that much. But the reality is the world has, and I think the IC needs to catch up. The kinds of people that the IC needs are people who not only have deep technical skills but also are good at the softer sciences, you know, the people who understand critical thinking and understand the world and understand history, and both sides of their brain are well-developed. The challenge is that private sector needs those people as well. So you're now competing with the private sector in ways that you never were before. It used to be that the mission was so compelling - and by the way, it is very compelling. You know, working in the United States intelligence community is fabulous.
Ellen McCarthy: But there's a lot of mission areas where you can get that similar self-actualization in the private sector that are mission-focused kind of opportunities. So if you're somebody who loves working cyber and you've got someone like Capital One saying, come work for me. I'm going to pay you a decent wage. I'm going to give you flexibilities. You can carry one of - cellphones with you. And by the way, you're also going to save your family's money. That's a compelling mission. And so why would I want to go into NSA, where I'm not allowed to bring my cellphone? I have set working hours. I have to go through a polygraph. And I can only do what I'm supposed to do. I mean, that's - those are the challenges the IC faces today. How - you know, in a post-COVID environment, how can we provide similar flexibilities to our people? How can we let new dads maybe come in at 9 in the morning vis 5:30 in the morning and do their job? How can they stay connected to their family, you know, while they're at work? And these are not new challenges, by the way. But large bureaucracies are so hard to change.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Ellen McCarthy: And I know the IC is looking at this right now, but I think it's going to require some monumental change, not iterative change.
Andrew Hammond: Before we go on to the INR, tell us about some of the other positions that you had before you go there.
Ellen McCarthy: So I left a couple of - so I did work at NGA, but in between I worked at a nonprofit called the Intelligence and National Security Alliance. That's actually a funny story. I left USDI when Jim Clapper was the undersecretary. And he had actually helped create the Intelligence and National Security Alliance or its predecessor organization. And when I went to tell him that I was leaving government, he said, that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard - again, because you just didn't leave government. But I'll tell you that a year later, after I worked at INSA, he, at an event, came to me and said, I'm so very proud of you for what you did. And that meant everything. That's like your father telling you how proud he is of you. But I'll tell you, leaving government to run a nonprofit that is providing a platform for government and the private sector to come together and talk about some hard problems - how should acquisition work? How should security clearances work? How can we introduce more innovation into the government? And that's what INSA does. And so I gained some real insights to how the private sector works, how it wants to support the government, what the challenges are and also gaining exposure to this whole new world in terms of just now learning about other companies and other capabilities.
Ellen McCarthy: I actually would leave government another time. After I was at NGA, I would leave to run a for-profit company that was aligned to another nonprofit called Noblis. And that company is very focused on research and development and innovation. And as a for-profit subsidiary, it was my job to incorporate the programs that Noblis had created through its R&D investments into the government. And so this concept of how you do that, how you deliver capabilities to the IC - I mean, and now I saw how you make money. It's not as easy - it's not very easy. And so I gained that expertise. Again, and I did it just because I was curious. I've got to tell you, I've done everything because I thought it was fun.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Ellen McCarthy: I never did anything with the thought that someday it's going to lead to something else. Every opportunity has been - this sounds like fun; I will try it. So it's not a traditional path. But that's pretty much all I've done between here and INR. And if you asked me what my favorite ones were, it would be INR and the Coast Guard.
Andrew Hammond: Really? Wow. I find the NGA really interesting because you can't get any more macro than looking at planet Earth, can you? So - (laughter).
Ellen McCarthy: I'm not going to tell you NGA was - NGA was an incredible - an incredibly challenging experience for me because you talk about large, large bureaucracies that do the coolest work. When - you know, when you talk about visualizing the Earth, it doesn't get any - you know, any more interesting, any more fascinating than that. Just to give you some perspective, when I started as an all-source analyst at Naval Intelligence, imagery analysts at the time were called PIs. You can't even use that word anymore. They were photo interpreters. PI is a bad word. But we had - our photo interpreters were in the basement of the building at Suitland. They'd all have light tables. They would analyze photos that were collected through early satellite capabilities and reconnaissance aircraft. And we, the all-source analysts, would go down to the basement. And they would tell us what they saw, and they'd give us what they saw. And you never heard from them; you had to go to the basement. And then we, the all-source analysts, would take what they had given us and go present it to a customer. The PIs were never to be heard or seen, and - which is really a shame, by the way. But that's the way it worked.
Ellen McCarthy: And so, you know, in those days, the imagery office was all about - you just look at imagery; you don't talk about it. And to my time, when I went to NGA and everything had changed - you know, now the imagery domain was no longer just a government domain. The private sector, the digital age - there was this explosion in capabilities in terms of commercial satellite systems. And the capabilities, the tools that were out there, whether they were infrared or 3D or just the ways in which we could analyze images was no longer just a light table - synthetic aperture radar. Now photo interpreters were no longer photo interpreters. They were geospatial imagery specialists. These were highly technical, highly skilled people who also not only could look at a point in Earth or space, but they understood why it was important. And so the days of the PIs never being seen or heard were long over. And NGA had moved into its new building in Springfield at that time, this gorgeous, huge building, all glass. And there was never a day I drove into that building and was not completely awestruck and by those imagery experts who were just so good at what they did. I was very intimidated my first year there because I was a consumer of imagery, but I was not a producer of imagery. And so I had to get really smart fast.
Ellen McCarthy: But I think that the reason that I was brought over to NGA, the reason Tish brought me over was because I knew about how the private sector work and what was going on in the commercial imagery world. And so the challenge was, how do you move a large bureaucracy to maybe change its business model? How do you get that community to be more comfortable leveraging what's going on in the private sector? How, as a former human capital person, do you incentivize analysts who want to work with commercially obtained images vis - just images that are secured by national technical means? And how do you align budget to requirements? So she brought me on board more because of my understanding of the IC than because of my understanding of geospatial imagery.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Go to our webpage, where you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. We have over 500 episodes in our back catalog for you to explore. Please follow the show on Twitter at @INTLSpyCast, and share your favorite quotes and insights, or start a conversation. If you have any additional feedback, please email us at email@example.com. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter at @SpyHistorian.
Andrew Hammond: This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum. The "SpyCast" team includes Mike Mincey and Memphis Vaughn III. See you for next week's show.