Faculty Interview Series: An Interview with Kevin M. O’Connell, SSP Adjunct Professor

By: John P. Woog, Reporter

Photo Credit: Innovative Analytics and Training, LLC

Professor Kevin M. O’Connell joined the Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies in 2001 as an Adjunct Professor, making Spring 2017 his 32nd consecutive semester at Georgetown. His areas of expertise are comparative intelligence, remote sensing, geospatial intelligence, and the role of intelligence in US national security.

Professor O’Connell holds a M.A. in Public Policy from the University of Maryland. Prior to coming to Georgetown, he worked in the US government in a variety of intelligence and national security capacities before joining the private sector, ultimately founding his own company, Innovative Analytics and Training, LLC, where he currently serves as President and CEO.

Professor O’Connell recently sat down with the GSSR to share his story of how he came to Georgetown as well as some advice for current SSP students.

You have had an extremely diverse set of career experiences, including service as a Senior Analyst in the White House Situation Room, Special Assistant on National Security Affairs to the Vice President, and Senior Staff Officer in the Office of the Director of Central Intelligence. Following your distinguished career in government, you became a Senior Intelligence Policy Analyst and, subsequently, Founding Director of the Intelligence Policy Center at the RAND Corporation. You are currently serving as President and CEO of Innovative Analytics and Training, LLC, a private sector enterprise which provides support to government and corporate clients in diverse areas ranging from cybersecurity to financial threat management to remote sensing. At RAND and as a member of the faculty at Georgetown, you have written extensively about numerous topics in the areas of national security and intelligence. Aside from your position here at Georgetown, can you share with us what have been (1) the most challenging and (2) the most rewarding experiences of your career to date?

Several experiences that were both challenging and rewarding come to mind. It’s relatively easy to start a company; it can be quite difficult building and sustaining it. We’re coming up on our ten-year anniversary and I couldn’t be more proud of the team and what we’ve accomplished. Another rewarding experience was during my time in the White House. I had the privilege of delivering daily briefings to President George H.W. Bush; these included the periods of time spanning the Gulf War and the coup attempt against Gorbachev. President Bush, having been the former Director of Central Intelligence, understood intelligence better than any President since probably George Washington himself and this made intelligence communication and the decision-making process flow very well.

What brought you to Georgetown, and what attracted you to join the faculty of the Security Studies Program in particular?

Dan Byman, Liz Stanley, and Mike Brown were instrumental in my coming to Georgetown. Back in 2001, the school was trying to build up its intelligence curriculum and was, at the time, offering a three-week, three-credit executive class (including 2,000 pages of required reading!) for senior Department of Defense employees. I began teaching this class and shortly after 9/11, was asked to continue teaching within SSP. I thought that a course on comparative intelligence would be particularly interesting, and an under-explored subject. At the time, there was a real lack of public information about intelligence, especially for services other than the United States, the United Kingdom, and even Russia. Things have changed now, however: while it seems like there is so much more information available about intelligence, much of it is biased or inaccurate, so there remains a need to read information about intelligence critically and facilitate creative student thinking about this field.

What course are you teaching this semester, and what key points would you like your students to take with them as they prepare for their careers?

I am teaching SEST-532, Comparing Intelligence Services. We begin brainstorming paper topics fairly early in the course and I always challenge students to thoroughly research their topic before committing to it, to ensure it will be a topic they can effectively write about. While I welcome topics that are particularly out-of-the-box, I ask them to make sure that there is sufficient, credible information to write about them. In essence, they need to find enough information to produce a thorough, well-thought out, and academically rigorous paper.

In teaching, I strive to help students think about intelligence in a different way; there are many different ways that countries define intelligence and I think that treating it comparatively is a great way to expose students to a wide range of developments in this diverse and dynamic field. I have greatly enjoyed watching many of my former students succeed and excel in their careers in government and the private sector. Aside from working hard in my career, I have also been fortunate to have such a diverse career. I would strongly encourage students to seek different kinds of opportunities and look at career moves from many different perspectives.

You are an authority in the areas of remote sensing and geospatial intelligence, and have co-edited an exhaustive review of the impact of satellite imagery on our ability to monitor world affairs and formulate policy. Could you comment on your thoughts regarding the evolving nature of the field over your career? Which new technologies are likely to emerge as particularly important over the next 10 years?

In my 25 years of experience in this field, I’ve witnessed a pretty remarkable transformation. When it started out, it was just the United States and the Soviets who had satellite imagery capabilities. What’s gradually been happening is that the satellite imagery business has been shifting from the mere ability to launch satellites and collect data to the increasingly larger contributions coming from the analytic insights that satellite data allows; the growing uniqueness of satellite-gathered information contributes greatly to what we call the “world of transparency,” that term meaning that information historically available only to government is now available to a much wider range of actors on a wide variety of topics, including through commercial companies.

In terms of emerging technology and trends to watch, I think we can expect several “space race”-type developments. Previously, the United States held an asymmetric advantage over the rest of the world when it came to all things space-related, but other countries have since made their own contributions and advancements. Aside from the increasing strategic importance of space, I think that over the next decade we will see new types of space phenomena and new kinds of information becoming available to us. This kind of information will complement other kinds of sensed information (space, drone flights, human observations) to help form a more complete and deeper understanding. We’re on the edge of a geospatial revolution.

Some SSP students are already preparing for careers in the armed forces, governmental intelligence agencies, academia, or defense- or security-related consultancy, while other students are actively exploring their career options. What advice would you give those students who are currently undecided about their career paths?

First, I would say take a risk; don’t be afraid to jump into a new opportunity or go for something you really want. When you get out of school, if you don’t already have a full-time position somewhere, take the time to try two or three different things and find the one that is the most interesting to you and where you can make the greatest contribution. Next, and perhaps most importantly, you are in charge of your career path; you are the manager and if you want to try a new experience and are advised otherwise, remember the decision is still up to you. Overall, SSP gives students a phenomenal opportunity: it’s a fantastic academic platform from which students can launch into any number of career paths.

As we are undergoing a transition in our national leadership, our country is facing a number of significant challenges to our national security. Could you identify one or two national security issues that you think will be of particular significance as our country transitions to new leadership?

I think that, as a nation, we are not yet adapted to the kinds of information—including intelligence—that will be needed for effective security decision-making in the future. We have not yet fully recognized that we live in an information-rich environment that deeply changes how we process and provide information that affects intelligence and national security. And one where our adversaries can do the same.

Specifically, we need to take a more comprehensive view of issues, and how they might evolve in the future. Thinking ahead of security problems allows us to prepare more effectively for them. We need to use a mix of classical intelligence sources and open-source information combined with new tools and analytic capabilities to more broadly and systematically think about the future. We call this anticipatory analysis, which attempts to reduce uncertainty by prompting decision-makers to think deliberately about the future, how the trends that can drive it interact, and a wide range of possible outcomes. The government is not yet organized to leverage all the information it has access to in this way to deal with our most urgent national security issues.

If you could sit down and have a cup of coffee with any historic personality, who would it be, and why?

I’m a big fan of classical music, so I would choose a famous composer – Vivaldi, Handel, Beethoven, Brahms. The creativity and artistic expression embodied in their music has been a great source of enjoyment for me outside of work.

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