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TED2014

Stanley McChrystal: The military case for sharing knowledge

March 20, 2014

When General Stanley McChrystal started fighting al Qaeda in 2003, information and secrets were the lifeblood of his operations. But as the unconventional battle waged on, he began to think that the culture of keeping important information classified was misguided and actually counterproductive. In a short but powerful talk McChrystal makes the case for actively sharing knowledge.

Stanley McChrystal - Military leader
General Stanley McChrystal is the former commander of U.S. and International forces in Afghanistan. A four-star general, he is credited for creating a revolution in warfare that fuses intelligence and operations. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
When I was a young officer, they told me
00:12
to follow my instincts,
00:14
to go with my gut,
00:16
and what I've learned
00:18
is that often our instincts are wrong.
00:20
In the summer of 2010,
00:25
there was a massive leak of classified documents
00:28
that came out of the Pentagon.
00:31
It shocked the world,
00:34
it shook up the American government,
00:36
and it made people ask a lot of questions,
00:38
because the sheer amount of information
00:40
that was let out, and the potential impacts,
00:43
were significant.
00:46
And one of the first questions we asked ourselves
00:49
was why would a young soldier have access
00:53
to that much information?
00:55
Why would we let sensitive things
00:58
be with a relatively young person?
01:01
In the summer of 2003, I was assigned to command
01:05
a special operations task force,
01:08
and that task force was spread across the Mideast
01:11
to fight al Qaeda.
01:13
Our main effort was inside Iraq,
01:14
and our specified mission
01:17
was to defeat al Qaeda in Iraq.
01:19
For almost five years I stayed there,
01:21
and we focused on fighting a war
01:24
that was unconventional and it was difficult
01:26
and it was bloody
01:31
and it often claimed its highest price
01:33
among innocent people.
01:36
We did everything we could
01:39
to stop al Qaeda
01:42
and the foreign fighters that
came in as suicide bombers
01:44
and as accelerants to the violence.
01:47
We honed our combat skills,
01:52
we developed new equipment,
01:54
we parachuted, we helicoptered,
01:57
we took small boats, we drove, and we walked
01:59
to objectives night after night to stop
02:02
the killing that this network was putting forward.
02:05
We bled,
02:10
we died,
02:13
and we killed to stop that organization
02:14
from the violence that they were putting
02:19
largely against the Iraqi people.
02:21
Now, we did what we knew,
02:25
how we had grown up, and
one of the things that we knew,
02:28
that was in our DNA, was secrecy.
02:31
It was security. It was protecting information.
02:34
It was the idea that information was the lifeblood
02:36
and it was what would protect and keep people safe.
02:38
And we had a sense that,
02:42
as we operated within our organizations,
02:44
it was important to keep information
02:46
in the silos within the organizations,
02:48
particularly only give information
02:50
to people had a demonstrated need to know.
02:53
But the question often came, who needed to know?
02:57
Who needed, who had to have the information
03:02
so that they could do the important
parts of the job that you needed?
03:05
And in a tightly coupled world,
03:08
that's very hard to predict.
03:10
It's very hard to know who needs to have information
03:13
and who doesn't.
03:16
I used to deal with intelligence agencies,
03:18
and I'd complain that they weren't
sharing enough intelligence,
03:20
and with a straight face, they'd
look at me and they'd say,
03:22
"What aren't you getting?" (Laughter)
03:24
I said, "If I knew that, we wouldn't have a problem."
03:26
But what we found is we had to change.
03:32
We had to change our culture about information.
03:33
We had to knock down walls. We had to share.
03:36
We had to change from who needs to know
03:38
to the fact that who doesn't know,
03:41
and we need to tell, and tell
them as quickly as we can.
03:43
It was a significant culture shift for an organization
03:46
that had secrecy in its DNA.
03:49
We started by doing things, by building,
03:55
not working in offices,
03:57
knocking down walls, working in things we called
03:59
situation awareness rooms,
04:00
and in the summer of 2007,
04:03
something happened which demonstrated this.
04:05
We captured the personnel records
04:07
for the people who were bringing foreign fighters
04:09
into Iraq.
04:11
And when we got the personnel records, typically,
04:13
we would have hidden these,
04:15
shared them with a few intelligence agencies,
04:16
and then try to operate with them.
04:19
But as I was talking to my intelligence officer,
04:21
I said, "What do we do?"
04:23
And he said, "Well, you found them." Our command.
04:23
"You can just declassify them."
04:27
And I said, "Well, can we declassify them?
04:29
What if the enemy finds out?"
04:31
And he says, "They're their personnel records."
04:32
(Laughter)
04:34
So we did,
04:36
and a lot of people got upset about that,
04:37
but as we passed that information around,
04:39
suddenly you find that information is only of value
04:41
if you give it to people who have the ability
04:44
to do something with it.
04:46
The fact that I know something has zero value
04:48
if I'm not the person who can actually
04:50
make something better because of it.
04:52
So as a consequence, what we did was
04:54
we changed the idea of information,
04:55
instead of knowledge is power,
04:59
to one where sharing is power.
05:01
It was the fundamental shift,
05:04
not new tactics, not new weapons,
05:06
not new anything else.
05:08
It was the idea that we were now part of a team
05:09
in which information became the essential link
05:12
between us, not a block between us.
05:14
And I want everybody to take a deep breath
05:19
and let it out,
05:22
because in your life, there's going to be information
05:24
that leaks out you're not going to like.
05:26
Somebody's going to get my college grades out,
05:28
a that's going to be a disaster. (Laughter)
05:30
But it's going to be okay, and I will tell you that
05:34
I am more scared of the bureaucrat
05:38
that holds information in a desk drawer
05:41
or in a safe than I am of someone who leaks,
05:43
because ultimately, we'll be better off if we share.
05:46
Thank you.
05:49
(Applause)
05:51
Helen Walters: So I don't know if
you were here this morning,
05:57
if you were able to catch Rick Ledgett,
05:59
the deputy director of the NSA
06:01
who was responding to Edward
Snowden's talk earlier this week.
06:03
I just wonder, do you think the American government
06:06
should give Edward Snowden amnesty?
06:09
Stanley McChrystal: I think that
Rick said something very important.
06:11
We, most people, don't know all the facts.
06:14
I think there are two parts of this.
06:17
Edward Snowden shined a
light on an important need
06:18
that people had to understand.
06:22
He also took a lot of documents that he didn't have
06:23
the knowledge to know the importance of,
06:26
so I think we need to learn the facts about this case
06:29
before we make snap judgments
06:31
about Edward Snowden.
06:33
HW: Thank you so much. Thank you.
06:35
(Applause)
06:37

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Stanley McChrystal - Military leader
General Stanley McChrystal is the former commander of U.S. and International forces in Afghanistan. A four-star general, he is credited for creating a revolution in warfare that fuses intelligence and operations.

Why you should listen

With a remarkable record of achievement, General Stanley McChrystal has been praised for creating a revolution in warfare that fused intelligence and operations. A four-star general, he is the former commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan and the former leader of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which oversees the military’s most sensitive forces. McChrystal’s leadership of JSOC is credited with the December 2003 capture of Saddam Hussein and the June 2006 location and killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. McChrystal, a former Green Beret, is known for his candor.

After McChrystal graduated from West Point, he was commissioned as an infantry officer, and spent much of his career commanding special operations and airborne infantry units. During the Persian Gulf War, McChrystal served in a Joint Special Operations Task Force and later commanded the 75th Ranger Regiment. He completed year-long fellowships at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1997 and in 2000 at the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2002, he was appointed chief of staff of military operations in Afghanistan. Two years later, McChrystal was selected to deliver nationally televised Pentagon briefings about military operations in Iraq. From 2003 to 2008, McChrystal commanded JSOC and was responsible for leading the nation’s deployed military counter-terrorism efforts around the globe. He assumed command of all International Forces in Afghanistan in June 2009. President Obama’s order for an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan was based on McChrystal’s assessment of the war there. McChrystal retired from the military in August 2010.

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