The future of intelligence

New intell group wants researchers to bring back scientific breakthroughs

A new cross-agency intelligence organization is trying to do what the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has done for advances in broader defense technology. Its name, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, is even a riff on DARPA’s.

But unlike DARPA, the new organization has no labs or test beds of its own. Instead, IARPA funds promising new work.

“We’re looking for the innovators who are going to do brand-new work, things that have never before even been thought of,” said Steve Nixon, the Intelligence Community’s Chief Technology Officer and director for Science and Technology in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).

Leading that search is IARPA’s first permanent director, Lisa Porter, who until February was associate administrator at NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. Porter, selected from more than 40 candidates, comes to the new research organization with a certain familiarity with its mission and operations. The post she left for NASA in 2005 was senior scientist at DARPA.

IARPA is an amalgamation of research units from three intell agencies: the National Security Agency’s Disruptive Technology Office, the CIA’s Intelligence Technology Innovation Center and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s National Technology Alliance.

The new group — with a staff of about 80 — is sharing quarters with the Center for the Advanced Study of Language, a joint effort of the University of Maryland, Defense Department and NSA to develop groundbreaking language capabilities to improve intelligence.

Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte had been a major proponent of the new unit. Speaking at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in September 2006, he reeled off statistics from a report by the National Academy of Sciences that painted a picture of an engineering brain drain sapping the country’s economic strength, crippling its technological future and threatening its security.

“We are confronting adversaries,” he said, “who are achieving exponential improvements in their operations through widely available, cutting-edge technology in which their [research and development] costs are any CEO’s dream: zero.”

He described capability gaps in collecting intelligence, analyzing it and sharing it. The gaps existed, he said, “in part because our investment pattern is weighted very heavily toward big-ticket, multiple-year programs that yield incremental improvements” at the expense of supporting basic research. IARPA would close those gaps.

During the next few years, ODNI plans to double IARPA’s staff with an emphasis on scientists from nonprofit organizations — academic institutions, national laboratories and state-funded R&D centers — rotating in for stints of about five years, Nixon said.

To house this larger staff, IARPA plans to move in 2009 to a new building at M-Square, the University of Maryland Research Park in College Park, Md., joining other federal groups, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather and Environmental Prediction Centers and the Agriculture Department’s Center for Food Safety. The agency also will maintain a satellite office in Virginia.

SLIPPING AWAY The plans for IARPA are ambitious. But less than a year ago, IARPA’s future seemed less than certain. Just as it was starting to come together, it was nearly shut down.

“There had been a challenge from the Hill; they’d repeatedly asked us to do something like this,” Nixon said. “And the Intelligence Science Board had been urging us to do it.” In January 2007, when ODNI formally notified Congress of its intention to establish IARPA, it seemed like a sure thing. But five months later, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence passed an authorization bill blocking its implementation.

There were concerns, the committee said, that ODNI was snatching needed research funds from the individual intelligence agencies and giving them to IARPA. There were also concerns that too few details had been provided on how IARPA would operate, how its director would be chosen and how it would transition discoveries. The committee also said other “programs managed by intelligence agencies are over cost, behind schedule, and have failed to achieve key performance parameters.”

ODNI acted quickly to allay committee members’ concerns, circumscribing IARPA’s R&D arena and funding and ensuring that IARPA’s director would report directly to the CTO. In October, ODNI got the go-ahead on IARPA.

“We need to get back on the front edge of intelligence research,” said Michael Swetnam, a former CIA program monitor, now chairman and chief executive officer at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, an intelligence think tank. Intelligence agencies need to regain the leadership they enjoyed in the 1960s and 1970s when, he said, “the National Reconnaissance Office’s spending on space research was three times that of NASA.”

Existing agencies are there to check out new technologies, he said. What they don’t do is “explore new areas of research that could lead to new technology for use for intelligence purposes. We need to use new science to help make us safe. My belief is that the intell community needs to step up and be the ones to foster new science.”

To “get back to that kind of research, back on the front edge of intelligence research, we need to be funding research into leadingedge stuff, like neuroscience and biometrics,” he added.

Swetnam’s opinions hold some sway; he is also a member of the Technical Advisory Group to the Senate Special Select Committee on Intelligence.

But the wrangle that stalled IARPA’s implementation seems to have left ODNI officials a little sensitive on some points. ODNI spokesman Trey Brown said all three research units that make up IARPA’s core were funded and sourced to do research for the entire intelligence community, which is also IARPA’s intent. Additionally, “when the community research funding was consolidated into IARPA, none of the agency-specific funding from any of the 16 agencies was touched,” he said.

“IARPA just consolidated funding that already existed,” Nixon said. “Each agency still has its own separate budget, its own more immediate needs.” He stressed that although IARPA has drawn staff and some funding from intell agencies, it stakes out only the blue-sky research and leaves incremental technological advances to individual agencies.

At first blush, funding might seem less than problematic. The intelligence community money pie is a substantial one — ODNI in fiscal 2005 paid contractors $42 billion, 70 percent of its total $60 billion budget, according to figures prepared last year by ODNI Senior Procurement Executive Terri Everett.

But agency dollars are guarded, and the pie is shrinking. By fiscal 2006, it had shrunk to $39.6 billion.

Governmentwide, federal support for academic R&D, especially in basic research, in 2005 began falling for the first time in 25 years, according to a January National Science Board report. Far from taking up the slack, industry also has trimmed its support.

The amount of IARPA’s funding is classified, but it certainly is less than the much larger DARPA’s $3 billion. Although federal spending on science research rose by 2 percent in the fiscal 2008 Defense Appropriations bill, support for DARPA and the basic research it conducts fell by 4.3 percent.

Capturing funding won’t be easy, Nixon said, but “making your case is a lot easier when you have the organization in place, and you’re getting successes.” Additionally, he said, “DNI has called for a lot more resources to be going to IARPA. Many in the intelligence community and on the Hill are looking to add money to IARPA, and we’re happy for that support.”

In Lisa Porter, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell seems to have found an IARPA director to set congressional minds at ease. Her selection “is a key piece of the intelligence community’s 500-Day Plan for Integration and Collaboration,” he said in a Jan. 9, 2007, release.

Porter has the science chops that the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the position demand. She holds a doctorate in applied physics from Stanford University, and as a senior scientist at DARPA, her research included analyzing advanced computational fluid dynamics to develop physics-based predictive design tools.

Within 60 days of joining NASA, Porter had “developed an aeronautics restructuring plan that focused the directorate’s efforts on fundamental research, aligned with the nation’s Next Generation Air Transportation System, and supported the agency’s space exploration goals,” said NASA Administrator Michael Griffin in an internal memo Jan. 9. During the next year, he wrote, Porter managed the directorate’s migration to the new structure, then helped develop the nation’s first National Aeronautics Research and Development Policy and Plan.

She’ll need all of that experience to succeed as the first IARPA director. She is expected to do nothing less than “lead a renaissance of innovation in the intelligence science and technology community,” according to her official job description.

She won’t be starting entirely from scratch. She took over from acting Director Tim Murphy, who in June took over from Nixon, the first acting director. The office and budget already have a four-part structure: next-generation, close access and human support; incisive analysis; special projects; and exploratory research, Nixon said. During the coming year, emphasis will be on “building the organization, which is really tricky, it turns out,” Murphy said. “To do this kind of work, to be working for these breakthroughs, the organization has to live outside the rigid bureaucracy. But how you gain that liberty is tricky.”

Finding the original thinkers who will do the groundbreaking research is also tricky.

“It’s much more difficult than it was 40 years ago,” Swetnam said. “Then you could look across the science and identify maybe four or five people who were the experts in new research. If the technology they were working on seemed to have any potential for use by the intelligence agencies, we’d classify it, hire them and lock ’em up and not let ’em loose.”

Today, “every new technology, whether it’s nano or neuro or whatever, has maybe 10,000 people working on it,” he said.

Finding new ways to reach out and preventing overlap with other agencies or research groups will be part of Porter’s purview, Nixon said. One way IARPA will reach out is through its Web site, now poised for launch, he said.

Overlap is unlikely because “IARPA is dealing with breakthrough science, and there isn’t a lot of that,” he said. “We’ll partner with DOD and Homeland Security and others to ensure that doesn’t happen. And Lisa Porter will be concerned with that; she’s not going to spend a nickel doing something someone else is already doing.”

IARPA support, according to a January cybersecurity report by Energy Department researchers, is expected to span knowledge discovery and data mining, knowledge discovery in databases, largescale data mining, workflow, modeling and simulation, natural language processing, advanced video, multisource visual pattern recognition, human-computer interface research, visualization, fusion of information, cryptography and quantum information.

In October, IARPA helped fund the Text Retrieval Conference Video Retrieval Evaluation, promoting progress in content-based retrieval from digital video via open, metricsbased evaluation.

In February, it issued a broad agency announcement to solicit research proposals addressing innovative solutions for the initial phase of a new program dedicated to automating deep language understanding through the discovery of human-language indicators of social meaning.

“Nanotechnology has tremendous potential,” Nixon said. “Work going on in that area could have great implications for intelligence.” It also raises what Swetnam calls Elsies, ethical, legal and civil liberties issues. “You want to look at some of what’s going on in neuroscience technology,” he said. “The ethics questions that raises will scare you to death.”

But that’s not new, he said. “Every time there’s a new technology, it’s rife with these kinds of issues. But I think that if we’re going to pay IARPA to look at new research, new science, we also have to pay someone to look into these ethical issues.”

“Certainly as we go forward, we’ll have to come to grips with what standards will have to be met or complied with, what issues will have to be dealt with,” Nixon said. But IARPA is still in its early days. And, he said, “when you talk about neural technology, what I think of is how we can use it to help our analysts make sense of data. We’re overwhelmed with information now. Is there something we can do to make linkages in that data faster?”

“What we’re looking at is not the challenges present now,” he said, “but in the future, where some teenager may be able to build a biological virus as easily as today’s teen can build a computer virus. That’s just one way that biology could have a profound impact. The intelligence community has to be able to figure out who’s doing what, what danger it presents to us and how to neutralize it.”

“Innovation is a key to economic competitiveness and the technological breakthroughs that improve our lives,” the National Science Board said in its report, “Research and Development: Essential Foundation for U.S. Competitiveness in a Global Economy.”

It’s a concept Nixon is aware of, even embraces. Breakthroughs will go to intelligence agencies to be operationalized, he said. “But that transitioning can come in a lot of different flavors.” A contractor that helped develop the breakthrough might approach the agencies directly, for example. And eventually, like the digital cameras and charge-coupled devices that emerged from earlier intelligence research, they might make it to a commercial market.

“As the technology advances and develops, knowledge of it inevitably and quickly will spread around the world and become products,” Swetnam said. “But hopefully, we’ll first be able to identify its use for national security and have a little time between then and when it becomes a commercial product to use it to protect the nation.”

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