2010 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Sandra K. Brooks

Enabled military, law enforcement agencies and partner nations to collect and share vital threat information to more quickly locate, target and interdict adversaries at sea, on land and in the air.

In two daring operations on the high-seas during September 2008, heavily armed U.S. authorities intercepted a pair of semi-submersible boats several hundred miles off the Guatemalan coast, seized 14 tons of cocaine worth nearly $400 million and arrested the illicit traffickers.

These two seizures involved a growing threat in our nation’s war on drugs—the innovative use of small, semi-submersible vessels run by powerful drug cartels to smuggle billions of dollars of cocaine from various locations in South America into the United States through Pacific Ocean and Caribbean routes. These vessels are barely visible as they skim the surface of the water, move quickly at night, and are designed to evade radar detection.

At the heart of the U.S. effort to combat this ever-growing armada of drug-laden, stealth vessels is Sandy Brooks, the deputy director of intelligence and security for a network of federal agencies that target narcotics traffickers, weapons traders and, potentially, terrorists who might use maritime or air routes from South and Central America and the Caribbean.

Brooks’ role at Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-S) is to bring together information from multiple sources and share it with military, law enforcement and homeland security agencies for better speed of discovery, speed of decision and speed of action. This means constant electronic and visual surveillance, precise intelligence and staying ahead of the traffickers with new advanced technology.

Rear Admiral Dan Lloyd, director of JIATF-S, said Brooks is central to the task force’s success because she has a “great understanding of all the different types of information” needed to help identify “where and when to look” for drug traffickers.

U.S. and Columbian authorities have detected evidence of more than 100 semi-submersible vessels since 2006, and seized about two dozen since 2007. Brooks has been involved in a number of these operations, providing technical and intelligence support to the Coast Guard, other homeland security agencies and the military.

“The first one caught was called Big Foot because many people didn’t believe it really existed,” said Brooks. “It carried 9.2 metric tons of illicit cargo. And it could hide in plain sight.”

To enhance the U.S. drug interdiction operations in the Southern region, Brooks plays two other important roles. She is the chief of innovation and technology for the multi-agency task force, and also serves as the senior advisor for innovation and technology on the Naval Operations Information Dominance staff. As such, Brooks was instrumental in standing up the new National Maritime Intelligence Center (NMIC), which brings together intelligence operations from the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard at the national level.

In her task force role, Brooks started an experimentation program called Thunderstorm to develop, test and evaluate advanced concepts to detect and capture dark and unconventional targets operating in the maritime environment.

One addition to the law enforcement arsenal has been the Sea Maverick, a revolutionary unmanned, semi-submersible vehicle that continuously plies the oceans and gathers crucial information to help locate and catch traffickers and others engaged in illegal conduct.

Rear Admiral Sam Perez, deputy director of JIATF-S, described the Thunderstorm program as “an immense competition of technology solutions.” He said Brooks has been responsible for “an incredible amount of planning, skill and persuasion to bring it all together.”

Lloyd said Brooks has harnessed a wide spectrum of Defense Department and interagency resources, and pioneered a highly innovative technology bridge that has enabled military and law enforcement agencies to share vital threat information, locate adversaries worldwide, and direct interdictions in real-time.

“Sandy is able to leverage tens of millions of dollars from academic organizations, technology labs and agency research and development, and facilitate advanced experimentation in a real world battle lab environment,” Lloyd said.

At the new maritime intelligence center, Brooks is seeking to break down silos that have prevented various government agencies from sharing information not only on drug traffickers, but possibly even terrorists.

“She is figuring out how technology solutions will enable us to better connect the dots to prevent a future 9-11,” said retired Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen. “Most importantly, she understands how to take technology and intelligence, and put them in the hands of the front-line personnel who need them. She’s a problem solver.”

Vice Admiral David Dorsett, director of naval intelligence, described Brooks as “an expert in leading people” and a key participant in the new center.

“She breaks down the barriers—technological, procedural and cultural—and pushes the system to the limit to get things done. She is not comfortable with the status quo,” he said.

For Brooks, the watch words are constant innovation and rethinking the old ways of doing things in all three of her assignments. “We need to do away with the saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” she said.

This medalist was the recipient of the Justice and Law Enforcement Medal. This medal was combined with the Homeland Security category in 2013, and renamed the Safety, Security and International Affairs Medal in 2020.