Intelligence: Rear Admiral Tony Cothron believes God called him to Liberty for a reason

Though he grew up far from the ocean in Tennessee, Rear Adm. Tony Cothron enlisted in the U.S. Navy because of his curiosity, love for history and desire to see the world. He had little knowledge of what it would mean to serve as an air intelligence officer. Twenty-six years later, through God’s grace, he became the director of naval intelligence in the Pentagon. Now, as a professor in the Helms School of Government, Cothron is focused on threats over the horizon as he instructs the next generation on national security and intelligence.

Though Cothron served in various positions of the Navy, he often draws on two roles when sharing his experiences with his classes. When he served as commander of the European Joint Analysis Center, he transformed the way how American intelligence conducted counterterrorism analysis. 

“The four-star General in charge of the European command told me over a video link, ‘I want to know where every terrorist is in Europe and Africa,’” Cothron said. “I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and our team did the job supremely well.”

He also draws on experience from his role leading intelligence for the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean during the 1999 war against the former Republic of Yugoslavia. 

Cothron says his faith was critical in his being responsible and accountable and for having the courage to present unfavorable intelligence to decision-makers.

“Leadership is not about how many people work for you,” Cothron said. “Leadership is taking ownership and accountability for your tasks, getting them all done and then looking around and saying, ‘Who else needs help? What can I do for the team’s mission?’”

In his classes, Cothron uses the intelligence cycle to illustrate the intelligence collection process. It states that the purpose of all information gathering is to give the decision-maker an advantage over their adversaries. All data is collected with that need in mind. Students model the intelligence cycle with structured analytic techniques, such as creating a timeline of events or comparing hypotheses.

To help students grasp concepts in counterintelligence, Cothron has his students complete hands-on activities. For example, he splits them into teams and gives them 100 pieces of a 5000-piece puzzle. They must determine what the puzzle box top depicts. This is similar to how, in the field, intelligence officers often only have access to about 10% of the information of a situation.

In his Ethics in Intelligence (GOVT 487) course, Cothron approaches the saying “lie, cheat, steal,” that is often applied to politics and government, from a Christian perspective.

“We have to know our enemies and our adversaries,” Cothron said. “We have to get insights on them, but we have to do it in an ethical way. We also have to know how to operate ethically in a fallen world.”

Cothron infuses his lectures with stories from his career. He noted that stories engage students more than slideshows. One story he always tells students is the “buoy story,” which is about when he made a mistake in communicating intelligence to his team. 

In the end, Cothron believes that God led him to Liberty for a reason.

“I was really fortunate and blessed in my military career and I worked in (the) defense industry for twelve years after I got out (of the military,) … and seeing it from the defense side, the industry side, was really enlightening and useful for (teaching) courses here,” Cothron said. “I’ve come to think that … God just used all those experiences to prepare me for my real calling, which is to be here at Liberty teaching undergraduates to go into the field of national security and intelligence.”

Bear is the feature editor for the Liberty Champion. Follow her on X

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