The Complex

The Military’s Top Spy Will Be a Woman

For the first time in history, a decorated female officer is poised to become the next director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the military’s main spying organization. If she gets the job, Lt. Gen. Mary Legere, currently the senior intelligence officer in the Army, will become one of the most powerful women in both the ...

U.S. Army
U.S. Army

For the first time in history, a decorated female officer is poised to become the next director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the military’s main spying organization. If she gets the job, Lt. Gen. Mary Legere, currently the senior intelligence officer in the Army, will become one of the most powerful women in both the intelligence community and the U.S. military. It would also leave her poised to one day ascend to an even more prestigious post.

Running the DIA — which has a multi-billion budget and a workforce of more than 17,000 civilian and military personnel — would typically be the last stop in an officer’s decades-long career. But for Legere, it’s conceivably a stepping stone to an even bigger job running the National Security Agency and serving as the commander of U.S. Cyber Command, which oversees all military cyber defense and warfare. Legere has already been on the shortlist for that position, and was passed over not because a lack of qualifications, current and former officials said, but because an Army general was already in the post, and by tradition, it was time for the job to go to a Navy admiral.

Indeed, Legere’s resume makes her a natural candidate for NSA director — it’s practically a carbon copy of the agency’s previous chief, Gen. Keith Alexander — and there’s precedent for a DIA director finishing up his military career with a final turn at the NSA. If Legere were eventually to get that job, it would come with a fourth star and the enormous power and prestige of running the nation’s largest — if most controversial — spying agency and overseeing all of the military’s growing array of cyber forces.

Today, there are more women serving as senior officials in the nation’s intelligence community than ever before. Women currently serve as directors of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office, and the deputy director of the CIA and the executive director of the NSA (the No. 3 position) are women.

Legere began her career in the Army after finishing the University of New Hampshire’s ROTC program in 1982. Her first assignment was as a platoon leader with a military intelligence battalion, and Legere later served in intelligence posts in Germany and South Korea. She worked her way up the career ladder, punching all the requisite tickets for an aspiring flag officer, including multiple tours at the Pentagon. More recently she served as a senior intelligence leader in Iraq.

Legere’s career has not been without controversy. She, along with other top Army officers, has backed a multi-billion dollar Army cloud computing program called the Distributed Common Ground System, which critics in Congress say costs far too much money and has failed to provide effective intelligence to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The Pentagon has withheld from Congress a report that shows a cheaper, commercial software program can perform many of the same tasks as the Army’s preferred system, undercutting the arguments Legere and other top officers have advanced for years.

Still, she has broad support from current and former officials, particularly those who have worked with her most directly.

"She’s a visionary leader, not only great at being an intelligence officer but also focused on how to efficiently manager manpower and resources," said Terry Roberts, a former deputy director of naval intelligence who served with Legere when she was running an intelligence brigade in South Korea.

Roberts says that Legere was as comfortable working with analysts and technology as she was digging into the weeds of the budget process. Those skills will come in handy at the DIA, where Flynn, the outgoing chief, was faulted for micromanaging his staff and having big ideas but little follow-through.

Legere also has a background in technology and human intelligence gathering — two essential components of the DIA’s work. In 2004, she was the commander of the Army’s 501st Military Intelligence Brigade, in South Korea, during a high-tech experiment dubbed Operation Morning Calm, in which analysts used new information sharing and analysis software to spy on a three-month long North Korean military exercise. At the time, Legere told a reporter that the new intelligence systems led to an "exponential" improvement in the amount of time it took analysts to crunch data and create reports.

In 2006, Legere was promoted to assistant chief of staff for U.S.forces in Korea, an assignment that was also a prerequisite for a senior post. Two years later, she was sent off to Iraq to serve as the deputy chief of staff for intelligence for the U.S.-led coalition, commanding about 1,000 employees in an intelligence center in Baghdad. A brigadier general, she was one of the two highest-ranking women in Iraq at the time. As part of her duties, Legere oversaw a program to train Iraqi women as spies in order to help root out widows who became suicide bombers to avenge their husbands’ deaths at the hands of U.S. forces.

By the time Legere arrived, the sectarian violence that had plagued the country in 2006 and 2007 had largely subsided, thanks in part to improved intelligence analysis by U.S. forces, which helped to round up or kill suicide bombers, terrorists, and insurgents. At the time, Legere told a reporter she was hopeful for Iraq’s future. "We’re not there yet, but I think we will get there," Legere told the Union Leader, her hometown newspaper. "We have a saying here: ‘It’s hard, it’s not hopeless.’"

Legere was in the country at the same time as her husband Paul, an Army colonel and engineer working on reconstruction projects. (The two met in the ROTC program at the University of New Hampshire.) She told the newspaper that they saw each other when they had a few moments to spare — which wasn’t often — and that aside from the four-car military-protected convoy she took to see him in a different part of Baghdad, "It’s a pretty low-maintenance date."

Legere’s experience on the battlefields of Iraq made her a natural choice for her next planned post, commanding the Army’s intelligence training center at Ft. Huachuca, Ariz. Military intelligence was transformed by the Iraq War. Analysts learned to use new social network analysis tools and share information in real-time. Huachuca is the place where future intelligence officers learn the basics of that trade.

But before Legere took command, the Pentagon changed the plan and sent her to take over as director of the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command — a significant promotion and a public vote of confidence in Legere’s leadership. She stayed at the command for three years and, in April 2012, received her third star and another promotion, to deputy chief of staff for intelligence, or G-2, the top intelligence officer in the Army.

Legere took over at a pivotal time for the service. Four months earlier, the last U.S. troops had left Iraq, and Army leaders were preparing to wind down the war in Afghanistan. In Washington, budgets were being cut and military planners prepared for a smaller, leaner force. The Army also began to reassess its prohibition on women fighting in combat, and began allowing them to serve in non-infantry jobs on the frontlines.

As the G-2, Legere oversaw the emergence of cloud-computing in Army intelligence, joining with the NSA and the CIA to move computers and databases into a distributed network that, in theory, is cheaper to run and allows analysts to collaborate with each other and do more work in less time. It was in many ways an extension of the program she had managed in Korea.

Now at the Pentagon, Legere has raised her public profile, appearing at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival, a high-level confab of public officials, business executives, and journalists. Speaking about the future of military intelligence, she said the Army had to improve its ability to "fuse" intelligence from different sources so that it could penetrate terrorist networks and better predict threats from non-state actors.

But "there is no killer app" to solving all those problems, Legere said, cautioning against assuming that drones and other high-tech gear could solve all intelligence problems. "There is no easy way at that challenge of preventing surprise," she said. "I think sometimes Hollywood makes it look easier than it is, and that concerns me a little bit."

 @shaneharris

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