Watch CBSN Live

Transcript: Robert Ashley talks with Michael Morell on "Intelligence Matters"

Listen to this episode on ART19

In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Lieutenant General Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, about the agency's analytic and collection missions, its role within the broader intelligence community, and its top areas of focus today. Ashley and Morell discuss the growing number of contested domains and numerous technological challenges with which the U.S. military is actively grappling. They also review near and long-term challenges from Russia, China, ISIS and Iran, including the aftermath of the Trump administration's strike on Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.

Download, rate and subscribe here:  iTunesSpotify and Stitcher.




MICHAEL MORELL: General Ashley, welcome to the show.

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: Michael, thanks for having me.

MICHAEL MORELL: Thanks for taking time out of what I know is an extraordinarily busy schedule to join us. I know there's lot of talk about. I'd love to start, Sir, by giving our listeners a sense of who you are, so maybe a couple of personal questions. Why did you join the military? And why did you decide to make it a career?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: So, you look back and when you think about kind of your lineage, my brother was in the Air Force. My dad was a soldier in Korea. He came back, spent about a year after the Korean War working as a mechanic, and said, "There's more to life. I want to do something else." And then he enlisted in the Air Force and spent 20 years in the Air Force.

So there's a pretty heavy legacy of military in my family. And then when I was at Appalachian State, got into the R.O.T.C. program, Army, not Air Force, even though my dad was a soldier and an airman. I took that route, that was the program they had, and kind of knew what I wanted to do. Which was I wanted to go into the intel field and wanted to start my career with the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg. And I was fortunate enough to be able to do both of those.

MICHAEL MORELL: So how is it that so early in your career, you identified intel as what you wanted to do?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: So actually it was in college that I identified that. About half of Army Intelligence will go to combat arms for the first three or four years. It's what we call "branch detail." And then they'll come back to M.I. for their advanced course, when they're a really junior captain.

And I was part of the 50% that did not get branch detailed. I finished pretty high in my class at App, which was very fortunate, and got intelligence. And that's what I've done the entire time. So I was never a combat arms guy. I started right off in intelligence. But I knew from my first assignment, I wanted to go down to a division level, and kind of work at that tactical level to understand what it meant to support troops in the field.

MICHAEL MORELL: And what pitch would you make to a young officer today for why he or she should think about intel?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: You get involved in everything that's going on on the battlefield. I mean, really, the day starts and ends with what's happening in intelligence. You get a chance to interface with senior leaders, commanders. You're on the operational side. You're on the planning side. So everything revolves around your ability to provide that kind of decision advantage to a commander. And that could be a commander at a company, at a battalion, all the way up to having a conversation with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs or a combatant commander.

MICHAEL MORELL: General, you've served in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan. Are there any moments from your career, your time in those three places, that really stand out to you?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: I think really probably the most was my tour in Iraq when I was a brigade commander. And so we took the brigade in. You have about a thousand soldiers whose lives are in your hand and you're responsibility is to make sure that they and their families are prepared for that deployment.

And what really weighs on you are the decisions that you make, because their lives hang in the balance. Have you trained them properly? Have you equipped them properly? Have you made good, sound decisions? Do you understand the risks that they're subject to and the missions that they're performing?

And so the fact that-- not that someone who didn't bring everybody home made a bad decision. One of the things that I was most-- I'm not sure "pleased" is the right word. I think what we were most satisfied about is that everybody came home from that deployment.

MICHAEL MORELL: And what point in the war were you there?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: So as a brigade commander, I was there in October of '07 and the entire calendar year of '08.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yes, pretty hot time.

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: It was kind of the middle to the tail-end of the surge.

MICHAEL MORELL: Right, right. General, for the last two years, you've run one of the key agencies in our intelligence community, the Defense Intelligence Agency. Can you talk a bit about the agency's mission, how it fits into the broader I.C., and how it differs from the agency that everybody thinks about, which is C.I.A.?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: So I'll put it in really kind of simple terms. We provide foundational intelligence and intelligence on the operational environment. And kind of the difference, really, that you allude to, the difference between if you think about C.I.A. over D.I.A., is kind of the customer base.

Whereas you're very familiar with what the C.I.A. does, in that it's kind of working directly for the president in kind of the "national" side of the house, for us, we're the defense side of that equation. Some very similar missions, things that we do. But it is for the Chairman, it is for the Secretary, and for all the combatant commanders.

And so the Defense Intelligence Agency's footprint is about half of us are in the Beltway, providing that support, providing a reachback for the COCOMs. But we also have the defense attache corps. So we are literally in all the embassies globally. And the core of the analytic support for all the J-2s and all the COCOMs are D.I.A. officers.

MICHAEL MORELL: And you have both an analytic mission as well as a collection mission, is that right?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: Exactly, yeah. And so we have technical collection on the MASINT side of the house. So there are some very discrete capabilities that we have that are very unique in terms of how we help provide insights into what's happening on the battlefield.

And we also have the Defense Clandestine Service, which is kind of the defense version of what the National Clandestine Service is. Again: different customer base, very complementary to how we integrate. And when you look at the missions inside the embassies, and the teaming and how that operates, it's a very complementary kind of a Venn-diagram capability.

And then really the core piece that you kind of alluded to, which is the analytic piece. So when people think about the Defense Intelligence Agency, they think about analysts. But, actually, there are ten career fields, and really kind of a self-sustaining enterprise in many ways: logisticians, science and technology, engineers, facility engineers, analysts, counter-intelligence, human intelligence. So there's a myriad of capabilities that are at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

MICHAEL MORELL: And what is the mix like between uniformed military and civilians?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: So we're about 75% civilian. And that has been a transition over the last couple of decades as we become more civilian and less military. Now, of that 75% that is civilian, about half of them at some point had a uniform on. So they do have some military background, military affinity.

But the good thing is, even the civilians have the opportunity to deploy forward.

They're in Iraq. They're in Afghanistan. They go to Syria. We have them in places like Djibouti. So they go forward as well with our military members, and they are integrated in some of the senior analysts that work for the combatant commanders and for the Joint Task Force that are forward.

MICHAEL MORELL: Sir, are there issues that D.I.A. looks at more closely than other agencies?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: It really is, going back to my comment about, "Okay, what's your core mission?" It's foundational intelligence on foreign militaries in the operational environment. To give you a rough sports analogy, if you're getting ready to go someplace, I'm going to give you the laydown of the team's capabilities, who the key players are, what their game plan is, their strategy.

For us, it's doctrine. It's all the military capabilities. It's how they're going to fight you, what they're good at, where they struggle. And then the other part is the operational environment. So, again, my sports analogy is I'm going to tell you about the city you're going to go to, neighborhoods to stay out of, where to travel, the good restaurants.

In this case, I'm going to tell you about the infrastructure, the roads, the airfields, everything that a commander would want to know to be able to go into that environment and operate and move around: all the infrastructure, hard stands, facilities, communications, all that information.

And we archive all of that on a number of nations in what we call a "modern integrated database." So that's kind of our foundational holdings. And we just continually add to and build that. And I can talk you a little bit later about our efforts to modernize that.

MICHAEL MORELL: And is there a game time analogy, where the war is on and you're assisting?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: There is. I mean, you're always working to update that information. As you know better than anyone, all the information that's being collected through the intelligence community on a daily basis is always updating those files and that information.

So just to give you one example: if you go back to April of 2018 where the U.S. struck the chemical warfare sites in Syria. We don't pick those sites. Obviously, that's the combatant commander working with the Secretary and the National Command Authority.

But when they come back and they look at, "Okay, what do we know about those locations? Can we validate it? What's the history?" That's when you come back to the Defense Intelligence Agency and say, "Okay, let me tell you everything we know that we've accumulated: what's the collective knowledge about those facilities, and are those valid targets."

MICHAEL MORELL: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). One of the things I've noticed is that you have occasionally, and I guess somewhat frequently, been publishing unclassified papers on key issues. And that's an unusual thing for an intelligence agency. So why did you guys decide to do that? And what are you trying to accomplish?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: So let me go back to the '80s. I'd love to show you, we've got a great picture of the Soviet Military Power publication. You probably remember that: it had the red cover on it? Matter of fact, I think the museum at D.I.A. has a copy of us holding that with Secretary Weinberger.

And it did that for a couple years. Matter of fact, when I first came on active duty in '84, and I went to the basic course at Fort Huachuca, one of the things that I was issued was Soviet Military Power. It was this unclassified publication, so that you had a sense of what your competitor had.

And it was also an opportunity for the Defense Department to share that with the greater public, to share it with Congress and others, so that they could have a means by which they could share with the public and talk about what our concerns were with adversaries.

So a couple of years ago, my predecessor, Lt. General Vince Stewart, a marine, said, "Probably need to re-do these." And so Vince decided, said, "Hey, let's modernize what was the old Soviet Military Power." And so they decided that, "Hey, let's go through that process of publishing this again."

And so we did the one on Russia, Russian military power. We did China. And we've recently released Iran-- yeah, Iran Military Power, as you have in your hands there. And when we do that, we take it up to the Hill. We provide it to members over in OSD and others. And so it's an opportunity for them to have a means by which they can say, "Here's the nature of what our competitors / adversaries have in their inventories, and things you should be concerned about."

MICHAEL MORELL: And in a way, we can talk about it unclassified?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: And we can talk about it, yeah. So--

MICHAEL MORELL: And to the public? And to our constituents?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: Yeah. And there's a degree of transparency and ability to share.

MICHAEL MORELL: These unclassified reports that you're doing, really with an eye towards lawmakers and folks like that: Are they available to the public?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: Absolutely. You can go to, and you can download them and read them for yourself. And we encourage you to do that.

MICHAEL MORELL: Just maybe two more questions about the agency. I'm going to ask you a question later about the impact of the technology revolution on our adversaries. But I want to ask you about the impact of the technology revolution on D.I.A., and what you're trying to do to take advantage of the rapid changes in technology to make D.I.A. more effective?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: Yeah. So from a technology standpoint, let me hit one of the, probably the "flagship" things, that we're working on. Which is machine-assisted analytic repository system, or MARS.  So I talked to you a little bit about our core mission is foundational intelligence. So it's all those holdings, all that information that you have on foreign militaries, and the information, the operational environment. So the database that holds all that was designed in 1996. So you kind of know where I'm going.


LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: A little over a couple of decades, it is dated, it does not scale. So we're in the process right now of how do we build what is the equivalent of the World Wide Web? Now, how do we create that proxy for what is available, both publicly available information and just the wealth of data that are coming in? And then how do we manage that as "live" information? You can imagine how important that would be today. But how do we do that to be able to feed weapons systems like the F-35? When we get information saying that--

MICHAEL MORELL: Right to the cockpit?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: Right to the cockpit. And so it's partly about building an enterprise. But it's the ability to apply artificial intelligence, machine learning. Because an analyst who's an imagery analyst would have to take-- you know, eyes on, you can go through maybe thousands of pictures in a week, as opposed to applied machine learning algorithms that identify equipment and you're going through millions of images a day.

And so it's that kind of dynamic. And we're building that right now. And the first kind of minimal viable product piece of that will be out in May of this year, and we'll start sharing that with the combatant commanders. And it will allow them to really focus on foundational infrastructure as kind of the initial tranche that we're focused on.

MICHAEL MORELL: And then last question on the organization. What do you look for in civilian officers when you're looking at applicants? What do you looking for? What do you like to see?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: Yeah, you're just looking for just an aggressiveness, a sense of inquisitiveness. Obviously, they're going to have to come up with good grades, and show that they've been responsible, and the new kids that are coming out of college. But it's those kinds of attributes: someone that's looking to be a problem-solver as he or she comes in.

And the demographic is interesting. Because you have me as a Baby-Boomer. And then we bring in Millennials. And now we're into X and Z generations. And so it's causing us, really, at the senior leadership level to take a hard look at how do we lead? How do we team with them? How do we share? How do we flatten what is normally very hierarchical in how we make decisions and how we think about things, and make sure that we value their inputs more?

Not to put a plug in for Gallup, Gallup recently published a book last year called, It's the Manager. And it is almost like a tutorial to how to understand Millennials and how leaders should interact with them. So it's kind of flattening communications across the organization, and making sure that we're pulling in their insights. Because it's an incredibly bright group of folks who come in and join us.

MICHAEL MORELL: Interesting. Over time, I saw more and more entry-level folks willing to send me emails and same-time messages, right? Something I would never have done--

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: Yes, we should bring that up--

MICHAEL MORELL: --at the beginning of my career.

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: --because I get that all the time. One of the things I do every Sunday is I literally sit down at my computer, if I'm not traveling on the road, and I write an email that goes to the entire workforce.

MICHAEL MORELL: Mmm, that's great.

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: And so it's kind of what's on my mind. I try to put leadership lessons in it. I have a new grandson who's four months old, so you get pictures of my grandson.

MICHAEL MORELL: Congratulations.

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: You hear about my family. And then you get, "Here's what my priorities are. Here's what I'm working on. Here's my calendar. Here's what's coming up next week." Matter of fact, last Sunday's note said I'm coming to see you. So that's in there, as well. So it's an opportunity to share what's on my mind, but also pass on 35-plus years of leadership and experience.

And the other part is, as you said, people who would never-- and it's kind of funny. When they write the initial one, they'll say, "I never thought about writing the Director before, but"-- and the good part is they share things about their family. They share lessons learned. And you also get some things down in the organization saying, "You might want to look at this." And those insights are priceless.


General, perhaps we can switch gears a little bit here and talk about some key national security issues, and, no surprise I think, in starting with Iran. We're taping this the morning after an Iranian missile strike on U.S. targets in Iraq. And I know that you're very limited in what you can talk about here.

But I was wondering if you could give us a sense of how you think the Iranians are thinking about all this? How are the Iranians thinking about how we got here? How the Iranians are thinking about where we are. How the Iranians might be thinking about where we might be going. Can you talk about that at all?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: Yeah, I really can't get into that. We watch closely what the news is discussing and things along those lines. But it's nothing I can really get into right now.

But rest assured, the information that we see, our understanding of what is taking place, the members of the I.C. are feeding that directly into the Chairman, to the combatant command, to the Secretary of Defense. And so I can tell you from my vantage point, as a senior member of the I.C., we have unencumbered access to the senior leaders of the Defense Department and the ability to ensure that we are providing them everything that we know and understand.

And a key part of what we do is what I can't necessarily share with you right now. But what you're asking is, "Yeah, we do those kinds of assessments" to make sure that they're able to think through. And, ultimately, it's provide best military advice.

MICHAEL MORELL: Maybe you can't talk about this piece, which is the importance of giving our leadership the adversaries' view of the world?


MICHAEL MORELL: Whether it's Iran or Russia or China--

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: --and we make those assessments under--exactly. So that's integral, the ability to understand that. And you, better than anyone, understand. One of the most challenging things is, in the intel world, you look at capability and intent. It's much easier to lay out capability. Intent gets a little bit more into the gray space. And it just depends on how exquisite your understanding is.

MICHAEL MORELL: Can you talk a little bit, particularly since we have this wonderful, unclassified Iran document, can you talk a little bit about Iranian military capabilities and how they've evolved over time?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: So they got more sophisticated. Obviously, when you look at the weapons systems they have, the ballistic missiles, those have evolved over time, the accuracy and the capabilities that they've built. So it is a very capable military.

MICHAEL MORELL: I was wondering, and maybe you can't. But General Soleimani was extraordinarily effective at leading Iran's efforts in the region. And I'm just wondering, long term, what his loss might mean for the effectiveness of what the Iranians are able to do outside their borders?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: Yeah. So, obviously, very influential and very hands-on over the decades that he led Quds Force, over the last couple of decades. With any change in leadership, there will be obviously some minor perturbations. But organizations survive. We've seen that. Historically, any time you take someone out, there is always going to be someone who steps up into that position.

MICHAEL MORELL: In my experience, it's very difficult to tell whether a successor's going to be more effective or less effective. There is this period of time where they have to learn, right? But it's very difficult to guess whether the successor is going to be better or worse, is my experience in this kind of game.

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: I think that's a fair assessment.

MICHAEL MORELL: Talk a little bit about the importance of U.S. forces in Iraq. Iraqi Parliament, at least a part of the Iraqi Parliament, the Shia part of the Iraqi Parliament, voted for us to leave. Nobody really wants that to happen, and I don't think senior Iraqi leaders want that to happen. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about why it's so important to the United States to have our forces there for the anti-ISIS fight.

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: Yeah. And you've heard that before from a policy standpoint. The ability to continue to have pressure on ISIS in Iraq, to have pressure on ISIS in Syria, is very important to the mission. And as we watch the evolution of ISIS on the ground, as they go through a period of kind of a reset, and focus on future operations, it's critical that if you're on the ground, you have better access and better understanding to what they might be up to.

MICHAEL MORELL: So ISIS has lost its caliphate, but they're still a force. Some people have said, I had the deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center here not long ago, who actually said they're regrouping. So if we were forced to leave Iraq, what kind of rebound would you be worried about in terms of ISIS? How important is the presence of U.S. military forces in Iraq?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: There are a lot of variables there. Because there's a coalition of forces that are there that are putting pressure, the Iraqi partners were actually instrumental in taking down the caliphate. So it's the ability to apply pressure. So there are going to be different variables, based on who is there and who is doing that work. As you mentioned, the NCTC, I think you said the deputy had come in.

MICHAEL MORELL: Russ Travers, yeah.

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: Yeah. So from a resurgence standpoint, as we look at resurgence, resurgence is when they actually start controlling territory again. So I would say it's not in a resurgent stage, but it is at a point of regrouping and looking at how they continue the media message, how they manage various branches that go through Africa, through the Pacific, and other regions like that.

MICHAEL MORELL: And any concern on your part about the Russians trying to take advantage of where we are here?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: Yeah. I really don't want to get into that particular issue. What I would say about Russian activity specifically, it's been interesting when you look at Putin's strategy and the footprint that they had in the '70s and '80s, and where they are right now.

I've heard people ask the question whether you think he's an opportunist. I think there is a deliberate strategy behind the maneuvers that he is making. You know, before the Yom Kippur War in '73, the Egyptians pushed the Russians out. I think it was in the mid-'80s that they left Syria.

And so we see that footprint coming back in: a presence with Assad, a port facility, the ability to project power coming into Syria, a presence off the Med. So there are a lot of advantages that Russia, and Putin specifically, have garnered with the relationship with Syria.

MICHAEL MORELL: So enough on Iran. Russia and China: I'm just wondering if you could give us a sense of the strategy challenge that they pose to the United States over the long term? How do you see that?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: Yeah. So when you look at the national defense strategy, and this is one of the core things that we do for the Defense Intelligence Agency, three major lines of effort. 1) Is how to increase our lethality. Another is expanding the relationship with partners and allies. And then the other is really kind of a business practice. But it's all under the context of great power competition.

So one of the things that we look at is the M in the DIME. But we also have to look at the other instruments of power, because it all has an impact. So there's a degree of complexity. And one of the things I think is really powerful is it brings the intelligence community together more.

Because it's not for us. In the Defense Department we're obviously laser-focused on the military part of it. But we have to pay attention to economics. We have to pay attention to the information sphere. And we watch what happens diplomatically.

Because if you think about the belt and road initiative for China, in particular, moves economically might open the opportunity for a port. Which could be eventually a forward stage or a base for a navy. So it has an impact on the "M."

China very different from Russia: China much more the superpower in the economic realm. Russia, obviously with the number of nukes they get and their legacy role as a superpower in the Cold War construct, is an important player, but not the economic side.


LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: But as you look at the kind of things that give you the most concern, let me talk about the domains in which we fight, all right? So you have cyberspace, air, maritime, and ground. For the 18, going on 19, years that we've been in the counterterrorism fight, that's really been a ground domain that was contested.

So now what you have to think about is all the domains being contested to varying degrees. Whether that is symmetric, asymmetric, and emerging domains, such as cyber and space, which are going to be absolutely critical, I mean, the dependencies that we have in space. So we watch very closely the investments that both China and Russia make in space.

Right now, there are probably 50 different nations that have satellites in orbit. There are about 13 different nations that have the ability to launch. And so they're increasing their presence. And one of the things that we put out was a thing called Challenges in Space. And so the Defense Intelligence Agency, much like the studies that we've done on these countries, we wanted to say, "How do we get out to the American public, how do we make them understand the nature of those challenges?"

And so we put out a publication called Challenges in Space. And I was actually surprised how much information we could get out. We talked about anti-satellite capabilities, co-orbital capabilities, electronic warfare, so a number of threats to the constellations. Which could be hugely impactful on everything we do every single day: you pick up your phone, you want to know where you are, your TV, all the things

that those constellations of commercial satellites and everything do for you, and enable basic functions of the day. So for me, looking at the contested domains is a critical part of understanding technology and its development.

Another big piece of that is the internet of things because of just the simultaneity and the instantaneous ability to reach across the globe and have an impact. Which is why the ability to defend your networks, to be secure, is absolutely critical.

And then the other part is kind of the diffusion of weapons and kinds of technology, ballistic missiles, things like that. Because as you watch China, I think, is the number four in terms of weapons sales globally. Russia is number two, the number one in Africa.

And so there's a lot of proliferation of those kinds of weapons, ballistic missiles, things like that, conventional military capabilities, that you didn't have to watch that much in the past. And now you have to have a much more broad perspective on kind of the diffusion of that technology.

MICHAEL MORELL: So I wanted to ask you, Sir, a question about technology, which we've just been talking about. It's always been a key driver in the development of weapons and how people fight. Is there something different about technology today than it has been historically?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: I think in some cases the bar is lower, and the ability to access some of the technology. And it's not just really the thing that you would think about in the context of kinetics. It's bio kinds of things, CRISPR, genealogy, developing weapons along those lines that you could do in a lab. You just have to have some good scientists or good chemists or good biologists who are able to do those kinds of things.

So it's a number of these things, or hacking, or cyber. You can have a non-state actor who gets hired by a state actor that works from a non-attribution standpoint. NSA did a phenomenal job last year, I think it was last year, uncovering the Internet Research Agency, an arm that was operating on behalf of the Russians.

And so it's those kinds of things, the diffusion of the technology. And so the key mission for the Defense Intelligence Agency is, looking on it as the only all-source agency, is we look at all the collection NGA has, National Security Agency has, the rest of the members of the I.C., to bring all of that together, and to give you a holistic view of what those threats look like and what the technology looks like.

The other part is, and I had a conversation with a couple of folks, a couple of futurists. And I said, "Is there something that's coming out that you see is such a game-changer that gives you concern?" And they said, "Not necessarily that, as much as it is how do you operationalize it?"

And so when we talk about, "Okay, who's got the lead in hypersonics? Who's got the fastest computers? Who is cracking quantum?" Over the course of the next decade, I think you'll see a number of nations that will have those capabilities. Hypersonics, obviously, China, Russia, are moving in that direction, and I think you'll see those capabilities over the next ten years.

The key thing for us is how do you understand it? How does it operate? And then how do you defeat it? What's the defeat mechanism? So, for us, it's understanding how the system works, making sure that there's not a game-changing technology that shows up on the battlefield that we didn't see and that we can't feed back to the Defense Department to say, "This is how this operates, and then we're going to team with you on how we're going to beat it."

MICHAEL MORELL: The civilian technologies that the Chinese are going after in a significant way, whether it's A.I., or machine learning, or bio, or any number of things: Do you follow those, as well, because of the potential military applications down the road?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: Absolutely, absolutely. A lot of that stuff is dual-use. And so one of the things we'd be concerned about is just performance enhancement. Maybe a bad analogy, but for those who are old enough to remember Universal Soldier, back with Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme, I mean, that kind of science fiction is science reality.

Then you get into a lot of ethical issues in terms of who would actually apply those kinds of things? So, in other words, how do I make somebody stronger, increase his or her endurance? Then, at some point in the coming decades, there will be the machine-human cognitive interface to allow you to make decisions, to process information more. So we watch all of that to bring all of that together to understand, "What is the totality of capabilities, not only on individual performance but on technology, for nations that may be competitors or adversaries?"

MICHAEL MORELL: So, General, I understand D.I.A. played an important role in the Baghdadi operation. Can you talk about that?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: We did. So when they got the remains and the DNA, we actually had the ability to take labs in and have them forward-deployed. And so we had that capability that is in-theater. And so the DNA actually comes back to D.I.A., and we had the ability to make the positive identification on Baghdadi. And the technology's gotten so sophisticated that what we did with the Bin Laden remains, which took hours--

MICHAEL MORELL: Yes, it did, I remember.

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: --literally got down to minutes to be able to do that. So from a science and technology standpoint it's pretty mouth-watering, some of the capabilities that the team has and how we support not only conventional, but the soft forces that are in-theater.

MICHAEL MORELL: General, you've been absolutely terrific with your time. And I just wanted to ask you one more question. What would you want the American people to know about the men and women of the Defense Intelligence Agency?

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: I only pause because it's kind of an emotional thing to talk about. I think the best way to say it is, "We got your back." When somebody asks me, "Why do you do this?" the answer's pretty easy. It's my kids. And so I try to see every new course of officers coming into D.I.A. My first slide is, "Why are you here?" "What's your why?"

And then I tell them what mine is. I say, "Think about a bullseye. And in the middle of that bullseye, that concentric circle, is my family, my kids. And then you go out, and it's my cousins and my uncles and my aunts. And before you know it, it's 330 million Americans. And they're very agnostic about what they do. They have a passion for it. You know that very well. And they come in and they put their heads down and they row hard so that those 330 million Americans can pursue their hopes and dreams.

MICHAEL MORELL: General, thank you so much for coming on the show.

LT. GENERAL ROBERT ASHLEY: Thanks, Michael, I appreciate it.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue