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Tenth annual Aspen Security Forum: Issues vital to our future

ASPEN, COLORADO – Each summer, senior experts from the military, media, government, academia and private sector converge on the Aspen Institute campus for a four-day conference, known as the Aspen Security Forum, to discuss national security topics and international relations.

This year’s agenda featured discussions about the current international security environment and what the future holds for U.S.-China relations, cyber threats to our economy and government, North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, violent extremism, artificial intelligence and the emergence of space as a battleground.

“Gone is the careful American balance between competition and engagement with China during the past 40 years,” said Nicholas Burns, executive director of the Aspen Strategy Group, as he opened the conference.

Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley Jr, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, addressed an audience of professionals, including distinguished guests like John McLaughlin, former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency; Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former president of Estonia; Madeleine Albright, former U.S. secretary of state; and Adm. Philip Davidson, current commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

On the second day of the conference, Ashley took the stage with Jim Sciutto, chief national security correspondent for CNN.

After learning of Iran’s seizure of a British oil tanker prior to their session, Sciutto started the conversation by asking Ashley to help the audience understand Iran.

“The DIA is the eyes and the ears of the U.S. and the military tells them what’s going on in the world, I imagine you try to fit those pieces together,” Sciutto said. “So can you help us understand how these Iranian activities that we’ve seen … fits together and if you have a sense of what the intention is from the Iranian side?”

Using a sports analogy, Ashley explained what DIA does to support policymakers and warfighters.

“We provide the scouting report, pick your team and we also give you the environments of the city,” said Ashley. “We fuse all the information that comes out of the other intelligence organizations … We’re the one DoD all-source intelligence agency.”

Ashley then discussed Iran, saying the country is at an inflection point aimed at challenging the status quo in pursuit of a better bargaining position.

Following their conversation on Iran, Sciutto switched topics to cyber capabilities, space and enabling technology. He asked Ashley to explain DIA’s Machine-assisted Analytic Rapid-repository System project.

“It’s meant to replace the modern integrated database … by applying artificial intelligence, computer vision, we can have a much richer information environment,” said Ashley.

After a brief dialogue on great-power competition and the National Defense Strategy, Sciutto ended the session by asking what it means to be an intelligence officer in today’s political climate.

“You’re going to hate me for this question, but I’ll ask it anyway,” Sciutto began. “There is a dispute over intelligence … there are concerns about it being politicized … I just want to ask you, as an intelligence professional who works his darnedest with your team and the thousands of folks that work for you every day to get it right and send it up the chain, does that phenomenon worry you?”

Without hesitation, Ashley responded, “I am very confident in the information and the rigor and the apolitical nature of what the IC does on a daily basis. I give you that based on 35 years of doing this, and I could not be more proud of all the guys and gals that I work with, not only at the Defense Intelligence Agency but across all the IC.”

All full transcripts and videos of the Aspen Security Forum can be viewed on their webpage: www.aspensecurityforum.org.

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