Gail Harris was assigned by the U.S. Navy to a combat intelligence job in 1973, becoming the first woman to hold such a position. When she retired at the end of 2001, she was the highest ranking African American female in the Navy; her career spanned 28 years of leadership in the intelligence community, from the Cold War to Desert Storm to Kosovo. Her last challenge was in developing policy for the Computer Network Defense and Computer Network Attack for the Department of Defense. She recently authored A Woman’s War: The Professional and Personal Journey of the Navy’s First African American Female Intelligence Officer and will be at a special program at the International Spy Museum tomorrow night at 6:30 p.m. She’ll share her unique experience and perspective in providing intelligence support to military operations while also battling the status quo, office bullies, and politics.
After the jump, a brief Q&A between the International Spy Museum and Gail Harris.
From the age of five, you expressed a desire to be an Naval Intelligence Officer. How did you come to this decision at such a young age?
I was watching a WWII themed movie called Wing and a Prayer with my father. After watching a character played by the actor, Don Ameche, give the pilots on the USS Enterprise an intelligence brief, I decided then and there to be a Naval Intelligence Officer working with aviators. I can only describe it as an inner knowing that never went away. As corny as it sounds, I KNEW that was what I was meant to do.
You have been involved in military conflicts all over the world; what stands out as the most dramatic moment of your military career?
This is really hard. I’ve spent a couple of days thinking about it. There is no one dramatic moment just a series of moments. Every assignment had tremendous dramatic highs and lows. From my first assignment when I could provide the flight crews information that would allow them to find and track Soviet submarines carrying ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads en route positions off U.S. coasts. We needed to keep track of them in the event the Cold War ever went Hot. We had to be in a position to destroy them before they could launch their missiles. During my second assignment where I was part of the Seventh Fleet Intelligence Staff, when we were able to warn our aircraft carriers when the Soviet Union was sending airplanes, ships, or submarines to track them. During the first Gulf War where I briefed flight crews of what threats to avoid such as surface to air missiles or artillery as they carried out their mission. During my last assignment when I had to convince many in the intelligence community that cyberwarfare was a real threat and the intelligence community had a major role to play. It was all dramatic. The lows where when I came up short.
One of your assignments for the Defense Department included intelligence support for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. This task involved extensive coordination with U.S. and South Korean military, intelligence, and civil agencies. What kind of challenges did this pose, given all the cultural differences and jurisdictional issues?
Actually this was one of my easier tasks. The United States and South Korea have a very good and long standing military to military relationship. My Deputy was a South Korean Colonel for instance and I had other South Korean military men as well as U.S. troops working for me. All of this made the coordination relatively easy. Additionally the South Koreans wanted the Olympics to be a big success so they were more than happy to give me all of the support I needed. I didn’t have any problem with the Korean law enforcement agencies either. Everyone acted as one team. As for the jurisdictional issues, it was never a problem, we intelligence types focused on any potential threat that North Korea or terrorists might make to disrupt the games and the law enforcement types focused on civil disputes. We set up systems to share information and keep each other in the loop.
One of your last assignments dealt with the issue of cyber warfare. Where did you see our overall preparedness in regards to digital security upon retirement and where do you see it now?
At the time of my retirement, we were able to make some necessary beginning steps but were not prepared to fend off a major cyber attack. What we had done was focus on three areas. We developed an intelligence collection plan for the intelligence community. The purpose of an intelligence collection plan is to tell people what type of information needs to be collected to determine the capabilities potential enemies have to use cyber warfare. We also set up a system to determine under what circumstances would the intelligence community put out intelligence reports. It sounds like a no-brainer but no one had worked on that issue. Finally we developed agreed upon procedures to share information using the same or interoperable data bases. This was no small thing in that many of the larger intelligence organizations did not want outside organizations to have access to their computers and/or data. In spite of this we still were a long way off from being able to combat a cyber attack.
Today there are still major problems and I believe a cyber Pearl Harbor is possible if we don’t get out. For instance, United States Strategic Command is the Department of Defense lead for cyber warfare. They are only responsible for defense of military computers. U.S. Homeland Defense is responsible for defense of government computers and can call on Strategic Command as needed but there is no one organization responsible for all of government and all of the civilian infrastructure. Currently our cyber defense gurus can detect and deal with a cyber attack once it happens but they cannot detect an attack ahead of time. In military terms we need to develop a situational awareness capability where we can see the attack coming and prevent it.
Your book is inspiring on a number of levels and to just about every audience. What do you hope people take away most from your story?
I hope for three things. That people have a better understanding of how all of the intelligence community works not just the CIA, one of 16 organizations. As part of that I hope they appreciate the thousands of people many in their late teens and early 20’s who watch our back 24/7. These are truly unsung heroes. Second I hope to encourage young people to choose intelligence as a professional. Finally I want to encourage everyone to follow their dreams. My dream appeared to be impossible for many reasons, yet I followed in spite of the odds and lived everyone of my dreams except one…I never got to walk across the deck of an aircraft carrier in the rain with “Anchors Aweigh” playing the background.
Tickets are still available for this event at $12.50 per person. Contact the Spy Museum for more information at 202.393.7798.