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Summer 2005 | Volume 28, Number 2 | Alumni

A Display of Intelligence

Alumna Helps National Agencies Fight War on Terror

Michele Weslander ’91 has had “youngest-ever” and “first-ever” attached to her name since being recruited to work on classified programs in U.S. national security, first in industry and now in government. Soon after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, she began leading an effort among U.S. intelligence agencies to help fight a global war on terror.

Michele Weslander works in Washington, D.C., where she is shaking up conventional ideas about gathering intelligence.

The first-ever deputy technical executive for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), Weslander was raised by a single mom in Santa Barbara, California. She planned to attend college in her home state, even after she and her mother moved to Bothell, Washington, but a visit to Seattle Pacific University changed her mind. “I was so impressed with the atmosphere and the philosophy,” she recalls. “Everyone was friendly and focused.”

Weslander entered SPU intending to study physics and hoping to eventually become an astronaut. During her sophomore year, however, things changed. “She saw that we were using the principles of physics to accomplish things, such as altering sounds or analyzing the weaknesses in a bridge design,” says her former roommate and electrical engineering major Melani Shoemaker Plett ’91, who is now an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Seattle Pacific. Soon Weslander added a second academic major: engineering science.

“One thing that was unusual about Michele as a student was her intensity,” remembers Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering Don Peter. “She was tenacious about everything, and she wouldn’t leave anything undone.” When Weslander applied to graduate schools, Peter wrote letters of reference for her, and after graduating from SPU, she entered the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester in New York.

By the time Weslander earned a master’s degree in optics, she was being recruited by companies that had national security contracts with the U.S. government, such as Kodak, Harris Corporation, and Scitor Corporation, where she became the youngest-ever chief engineer. “We knew each other when we were both in industry,” says retired Lt. General James Clapper Jr., now NGA director. “She was widely known for her technical competence, passion for providing intelligence support for the military, and for being an innovator.”

In 2000, while still at Scitor, Weslander led a multidiscipline initiative between three intelligence agencies and the U.S. Marine Corps, with her team receiving the National Intelligence Meritorious Unit Citation. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks, the NGA recruited her.

The NGA, Weslander explains, provides maps and pictures for the president and the military; the National Security Agency (NSA) provides audio transmissions. The agencies, however, didn’t often share information or collaborate on analyses. Weslander asked others to “imagine the power of combining what NGA sees with what NSA hears.” She envisioned a “more robust” form of collaborative capabilities like instant messaging, allowing the two intelligence gatherers to share information almost immediately.

That year, Weslander and a growing number of colleagues from different locations and disciplines began promoting the idea. “We called ourselves the Band of Believers,” she says, adding that in 2002 she logged more than 100,000 miles in the air to help make the idea a reality.

But as Weslander’s recommendation gained momentum, it also met harsh opposition. She refused to back down, and nine months to the day after September 11, she presented the innovative idea to NGA Director Clapper and to NSA Director Lt. General Michael Hayden. Four weeks later, she was offered her current position, making her one of the youngest people ever appointed a senior executive in the U.S. government. “I call what happened to me a wartime promotion,” she says.

Today, although not in the military, Weslander regularly sits in briefings with one- and two-star generals, and she has traveled to the Middle East — including Iraq and Afghanistan — to support anti-terrorism operations. “She has done more than any other intelligence community official to promote collaboration between NGA and a key sister agency, resulting in direct and demonstrable improvement in the intelligence support in the war on terror,” says Clapper, now her boss.

In May, Weslander flew from her home in Virginia to Seattle on business. While here, she visited Seattle Pacific, meeting with current electrical engineering students to answer their questions. She also spoke frankly about the cost and sacrifice it takes to serve the country, including having little time to call her own. “I’ve actually taken vacations in Europe because my BlackBerry, pager, and cell phone don’t work there,” she says laughing.

“I knew Michele was a person who would maximize her gifts,” says Peter, her former professor. “I just didn’t know where that would take her — or how far.”

— BY hope mcpherson

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