What Keeps DIA Director Flynn Up at Night

Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn

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Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn

There’s a lot to worry about when you’re the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Here’s what keeps Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn up at night. By Stephanie Gaskell

With cyber threats, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorist groups spreading to more parts of the world, there’s plenty of things that worry Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

But what keeps him up at night is that terrorists find a way to attack us because U.S. agencies and other partner nations didn’t share information.

“There’s always going to be a crack. There’s always going to be a gap,” Flynn said Wednesday at a Brookings Institution forum. The enemy, he said, is “smart, savvy, cunning, guile, whatever word you want to use, and they will find the holes no matter how many resources we put against it.”

“If there’s something that keeps me up at night, it would be our inability to work together, as a group of national security, intelligence, law enforcement, that nations that we partner with, together. If there’s a crack out there, it could be in one of those places where somebody decides we can do this alone. And if there’s one thing that we know, we cannot do any of this alone.”

(Read more: Intel Wars: DIA, CIA and Flynn’s Battle to Consolidate Spying)

Flynn said technology only exacerbates the threat. With 500 million people on Twitter and a billion on Facebook, he said, there’s “a lot of noise.” Information passes so quickly now, even 140 characters can be a threat.

“We cannot sit idle in our worlds of the intelligence agencies and the system we have and not pay attention to that. We can’t go, ‘Well, you know, it’s not properly sourced.’ We have to be really smart about: how do we apply the open world to a world that’s really a closed-loop system?”

Flynn, who has led the DIA since last summer, cautioned against propping up groups like al-Qaeda. “Are they really talking to each other, are they financing each other, are they sharing ideas, are they sharing lessons? There’s a thickness to that that I think gets misrepresented sometimes,” he said. “I learned at the beginning of my time in the military: Never make an enemy 10 feet tall. Because I think as good as we are, we’re not. And so they’re not 10-feet tall. They are defeatable as an organization. What we have to understand is what’s the true nature of it? What are the underlying conditions that allow them to thrive in these environments where we see them thrive?”

Flynn may worry. But he said he’s long been inspired by a man he knew back when he was a lifeguard at the beach, before joining the military. The man would arrive early in the mornings and sift through the sand looking for lost items. “”This guy always found stuff,” Flynn said, because the man would watch where people sat on the beach. “He would be very observant. And the guy actually made a living doing it.”

The analogy? “We have to really be very observant of the things that are important to us and then ruthlessly prioritize where we put that sand basket to sift for the right types of information that we need. And even when we do that, even when we pull that sand basket up and we shake it, it is actually what I need, does it mean what I wanted it to be, is it the gold ring or is it just a shiny rock?”

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