Help wanted, must keep a secret: the case file on ODNI's Stephanie O'Sullivan
February 9th, 2012
12:02 AM ET

Help wanted, must keep a secret: the case file on ODNI's Stephanie O'Sullivan

By Suzanne Kelly

Editor's note:  In the Security Clearance "Case File" series, CNN national security producers profile the key members of the intelligence community.   This story is the first in a special Case File series focusing on the roles women play in the U.S. intelligence community

You never know when a life of espionage is right there in front of you, in an advertisement, calling you to a new adventure.  At least, Stephanie O'Sullivan says she didn't know when she answered a help wanted ad more than two decades ago for an employer looking for someone with experience in "ocean engineering."

The recent college graduate with a civil engineering degree had moved in with her parents in Annapolis, Maryland, while her fiance, whom she'd met in college, finished up his own program.  Her parents, in full anticipation of sailing off into the sunset when her father retired, had bought a boat, and that's where the three of them lived.

"I thought, 'Well I know about that, I live on a boat and I've been into boating all my life because my father was into it," said O'Sullivan, who answered the ad, not really understanding the full scope of what "ocean engineering" meant.  She soon realized why the ad was so cryptic:  it was for work on a classified program. "It turned out to be intelligence community work and it was luck because it's been a career of infinite challenge."

It must have been the right choice, because O'Sullivan now serves as one of the highest-ranking women in the intelligence community.  As principal deputy director of National Intelligence (PDDNI), she manages coordination and information sharing.  A big responsibility, given the fact that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) was created out of the 9/11 commission investigation as a solution for making sure that future information was better shared among multiple intelligence agencies.  It's a job that comes with a sense of mission and the burden of constantly wondering whether you've missed anything.

"I know it's corny-sounding, but we have the very great privilege of being able to believe that it makes a difference every day that you're here, that when you get up in the morning, if you rolled over and went back to sleep, something bad could happen," says O'Sullivan, from her spacious corner office at the ODNI.

For O'Sullivan, intelligence work signified a sense of service, an ideal with which she had been raised. Her father was a Korean War veteran who had gone to work at the National Geospatial Agency.

"He always instilled this sense that your actions have to be about more than you," recalls O'Sullivan.

Not just a job

O'Sullivan eventually left her "ocean engineering" role in search of a new challenge. She found it in the U.S. Navy, and to a certain extent, even more so later at the Central Intelligence Agency, where she knew right away that what she was about to take on would be different from any other job she'd ever had.

"When I first started at CIA, my boss told me, 'We promise you will not be bored,'" recalls O'Sullivan, a huge smile spreading across her face. "'You will experience every other emotion,' and he was 100% right."

The agency was just starting to attract more women to its ranks when O'Sullivan signed on in 1995.  She was among a core group who worked their way into management positions, and hers included a stint leading the agency's Directorate of Science and Technology.  She won't talk about what she had a role in developing there, but the DS&T is the part of the agency James Bond would have loved the most.  It's the place where new inventions and technological adaptations that help support intelligence and analysis missions are created.  O'Sullivan impressed many in that role and eventually became third-in-command at the CIA as the agency's associate deputy director.

Now in her highest-ranking role yet as PDDNI, O'Sullivan works a grueling shift. She wakes around 4 a.m., listens to the news, and reads through one of three security bulletins she'll get throughout the day.

"That sort of sets the context because you know that a portion of your day is going to be driven by whatever the policy makers are seeing in their newspapers in the morning.  They're going to ask questions about it, and they should," says O'Sullivan, but that means someone had better have the answers.

On the way to the ODNI campus, which sits on a sprawling compound just up the street from the CIA in McLean, Virginia, she reads through the President's Daily Brief. By the time she clears security and arrives in her office, a briefer is waiting.  She has already poured over the intelligence that analysts who have been up much of the night have compiled.  She's looking for the holes, asking questions, expecting answers.  Three days a week that session is followed by a staff meeting, and then the work of the day begins.

"I describe my role as sort of utility infielder, so it's a mix of the mundane to the profound. Mundane, things have to be done, they're not sexy, they're not exciting," says O'Sullivan.  "On my desk right now, I have to do all the bonus decisions."

While the mundane may reflect much of what goes on in any office, the profound clearly does not. O'Sullivan describes that as the "rock your socks off" part of her job, the part that often involves the most classified intelligence missions.

O'Sullivan and her boss, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, are often briefed by teams carrying out sensitive work, or discovering new ways to collecting intelligence data. On a recent Friday night, an intel team did just that.  According to O'Sullivan, the intelligence officers, most of them working under classified cover, had come to brief the leadership on a new capability that's offering "profound" insights on "things" (spy language for "I'm not going to tell you anything").  Some of the briefers had driven in from the super secretive National Security Agency, about an hour away.

"They're sitting here and they're briefing Director Clapper and I and you know, they are so enthused about their work," says O'Sullivan.  "The director said something to the briefer from NSA about 'Gee, I really apologize that we could only do this on a Friday evening,' and she goes 'The people we're tracking are down this evening in that part of the world, it's the weekend, so we were free.  If they were up, I wouldn't be down here briefing you, I'd be down doing this job.'"

It's that kind of enthusiasm that still impresses O'Sullivan. And even with a career in intelligence, there are still ways to surprise her.

"One young man was briefing us and he had done a lot of the work on the street in bad places with bad guys," recalls O'Sullivan.  "In the middle of his briefing, he stops to say, 'I'm really nervous about briefing you' to Director Clapper, and I'm thinking this guy has been on the street doing dangerous things, being an American in a place where it's not good to be an American and he's nervous about briefing the director."

Being the 'woman'

O'Sullivan has spent the bulk of her career sticking out. Initially, as one of a very small number of women enrolled in civil engineering classes, and later, as she recalls, as the only woman in a conference room full of engineers.

"It was a room with several hundred men in this big auditorium and me. The problem was that it was boring, and it was a beautiful day outside and toward the end of the presentations, all of these men were getting up and leaving and I'm thinking, 'I can't because I'm the woman in the room,'" said O'Sullivan.  "The flip side of that is that when I spoke up, I had a chance to be noticed. What if I were one of the men in the room?"

Being a woman in largely male-dominated fields has certainly had its advantages, and she's looked to maximize them whenever possible.

"I just do things different," says O'Sullivan.  "When I started doing operations and running operations, the biggest mistake that we could make is repeat patterns or fall into complacency and do the same thing over and over. You learn to seek people who think differently than you."

But O'Sullivan has seen the tide change in the last few years - a point made vividly clear just a few months ago as she sat for yet another hearing before a Senate committee.  She was seated alongside the principal deputy director of the National Reconnaissance Office and the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, both of them women.  The chairman of the committee was Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

"At the beginning of the hearing, she looked at us and said, 'I don't think I've ever seen this before,' and she made a remark about three women briefing," recalls O'Sullivan. "I thought about it afterwards and I sort of thought, 'You know, there's a woman in a one two or three position, in almost every one of the intelligence community organizations, that's remarkable.'"

No one claims parity among management ranks, but women are filling up the middle-ranks of intelligence agencies at a quicker pace, which sometimes means taking on roles that were once filled largely by men.  Of course, the cost and sacrifice demanded in those roles pays no regard to gender.  That was made clear on December 30, 2009, when a suicide bomber who had mislead intelligence officers into believing that he had information as to the whereabouts of al Qaeda's then-number two Ayman al Zawahiri detonated a suicide vest as he met with CIA officers at a base in Afghanistan.  Two of the seven officers and contractors who were killed were women, including the base chief, Jennifer Matthews, who before being publicly named was described to members of the media as a "mother of three."

"People volunteer for things that I would hesitate to feel I had the right to ask them to do," says O'Sullivan. "Going into dangerous situations, going on tours where you don't bring your family.  It is a volunteer action. It's a sacrifice and if you think about all of the stories of men taking the necessary action, it's just as true of all of the women."

The events and decisions leading up to the bombing drew significant criticism, and a subsequent investigation forced changes at the agency, but the sacrifice made by those who had chosen to be there that day was not lost on O'Sullivan, who like others, had pushed to play a bigger role in the war that began with the terrorist attacks on the United States September 11, 2001.

soundoff (8 Responses)
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  2. DB5

    Very good story.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Reply
    • Ross

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      March 4, 2012 at 10:47 pm | Reply
  3. dreamer96

    Yes those 12 different sources of warnings about an attack like 911 were coming in through official government channels..but were lost, not passed on to one person, or misunderstood, or confused because they were mixed in with other warnings, or seemed to lead in different directions...symbols are like that..that's what they are sometimes...like noticing the nervous animals before an earthquake, some only made sense after the attacks...like John P. O'Neill's warnings...for one....some lost a lot giving those warnings..but none more then John...

    February 9, 2012 at 11:28 am | Reply
  4. Small Fry

    Very nice to see dedication and service. Glad to hear the US has good folks looking out for our security.

    February 9, 2012 at 5:01 am | Reply
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