Explaining the DIA’s Critical Role in National Security


In September, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley Jr., gave a wide-ranging interview in which he discussed the DIA’s core mission. Ashley noted that the DIA is charged with producing foundational military intelligence for consumption by warfighters and senior leaders to avoid surprise and prevent or decisively win wars.

As a DIA veteran, however, I’ve always worried that descriptions of the agency’s core mission have typically been overly broad and never been quite so clear cut. Ambiguity over the DIA’s responsibilities prompted Congress to probe more deeply into the specifics of how the agency is charged with supporting U.S. national security and defense objectives. Specifically, Section 2432 of the latest proposed Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 seeks “to prevent imbalanced priorities, insufficient or misaligned resources, and the unauthorized expansion of mission parameters” of the DIA. It further calls for “a repeatable process for evaluating the addition, transfer, or elimination of defense intelligence missions, roles, and functions, currently performed or to be performed in the future by the Defense Intelligence Agency.” Thus, a clearer explanation of what the DIA does and, more importantly, what it is supposed to be doing is in order, and I try to provide that here.

The most pressing issue is that the DIA’s motto — “committed to excellence in defense of the nation” — commits the agency to supporting an ever-growing number of missions, requirements, and customers. According to updates made in 2008 to the founding directive of the DIA, known as Department of Defense Directive 5105.21, the agency tends to over 70 specific requirements. In many cases, these include disparate missions that have little to do with foundational military intelligence. The DIA, for example, is responsible for managing the top-secret communications network used by the entire Department of Defense as well as operating the Joint Chiefs of Staff intelligence directorate, the Joint Military Intelligence Training Center, the Joint Military Attaché School, and the Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center. On top of that, it is also charged with collecting and evaluating open-source intelligence for the Defense Department and establishing and maintaining military-related intelligence agreements with foreign governments and other entities. Indeed, the DIA has become the Swiss army knife for the Defense Department’s intelligence needs, taking the lead on what other agencies cannot, or refuse to, take on.

However, despite its varied roles and responsibilities, the DIA can be boiled down to just two core missions —intelligence analysis and intelligence collection. Having a better understanding of these core missions could help to properly frame the agency’s value to the intelligence, military, and policymaking communities going forward. As it turns out, the DIA’s contributions in these two arenas are quite substantial.

First, the DIA conducts all-source analysis that spans a number of important regional and functional areas, taking the form of current intelligence and longer-term research projects. Foundational military intelligence does not just encompass order of battle analysis (assessments of a military’s organization, command structure, equipment, etc.), but also includes areas like emerging strategic technologies, infrastructure and logistics, arms sales, defense acquisition, and many others. Perhaps most importantly, the DIA contextualizes its analysis by considering the socio-economic and political circumstances driving nations to develop particular weapon systems. Interestingly, one of the many significant analytic contributions of the DIA is in the realm of unclassified analysis. The agency has released an unclassified assessment of Russian military capabilities, and is expected to do the same for Chinese, North Korean, and Iranian capabilities in support of the National Defense Strategy.

Also within the analytic sphere, DIA serves as the official coordinator for the broader Defense Intelligence Enterprise — a sprawling group of defense intelligence-related organizations — as well as an alternative voice of all-source analysis. On the latter point, the DIA maintains a regular seat at the table along with the CIA and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (the two other main all-source analytic organizations within the intelligence community) to constructively affirm and challenge the analytical assessments of one another. The development of independent institutional perspectives is critical to fostering an environment of competitive analysis.

On the collection side of the house, the DIA is responsible for collecting and processing defense human intelligence and measurements and signature intelligence. Of the two, the DIA’s defense human intelligence mission has been the subject of greater public scrutiny because of its apparent similarity to the CIA’s own human intelligence mission and the question of whether it can “provide unique capabilities to the intelligence community,” according to the House Arms Services Committee’s FY2014 National Defense Authorization report.

The DIA’s defense human intelligence mission persists, however, as it offers a range of collection capabilities that are rarely, if ever, discussed publicly. These include clandestine, counter-intelligence, and debriefing human intelligence activities. The agency’s clandestine arm, known as the Defense Clandestine Service, acquires military intelligence from sources around the globe. This is an important capability because it not only collects against existing defense requirements, but also enables the CIA to focus its resources on political, economic, and other strategic-level issues. The Defense Clandestine Service has struggled to get its footing, with Congress deciding to limit its funding in 2014.

Often overlooked by observers is the value that the DIA’s overt defense human intelligence collection capability — in the form of hundreds of defense attachés posted around the world — provides the Defense Department and the rest of the intelligence community. In many instances, informal discussions with foreign counterparts at think tank or dinner events abroad can yield significant insights. No other agency possesses official access to networks of foreign military personnel, making this a truly unique contribution. Additionally, as part of its human intelligence mission, the DIA since 2015 has run an organization called the Defense Debriefing Service, which overtly collects intelligence of interest from subject matter experts and others with knowledge globally.

Separately, the DIA is the functional manager for measurement and signature intelligence collection missions in the intelligence community. This discipline of intelligence can serve to determine whether a state or non-state actor has tested or employed weapons of mass destruction by assessing key characteristics of such an event — a critical forensic-style capability. While other agencies play a role in this kind of analysis, the DIA is primarily responsible for working with the military services to designate collection platforms for these activities and for serving as the central repository for such intelligence.

Going forward, these two core missions — analysis and collection — could serve as the guiding lights of any reform efforts to the DIA. If there are cuts coming from Congress or a reimagining of the DIA’s roles and responsibilities mandated by the secretary of defense or director of national intelligence, leaders would be wise to seek to minimize the DIA’s responsibility for activities that are not directly related to all-source analysis and collection. Too many missions tend to dilute the agency’s ability to carry out its core functions well. The DIA is already of distinct importance to supporting U.S. defense and national security objectives, but it could benefit from greater empowerment in core areas to demonstrate its unique value and perform even better.


Derek Grossman is a senior defense analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He previously served at the Defense Intelligence Agency as an intelligence analyst and briefer to the director. He is also the winner of the 2014 “Galileo Competition,” which fosters new and innovative ideas in the intelligence community.

Image: Brian Murphy