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R&D in the Intelligence Community

June 25, 2008


This past April I wrote a blog entitled Happy Birthday DARPA that focused on an article celebrating that agency’s 50th anniversary. DARPA has been a remarkably successful agency with a notable number of scientific and technological achievements that can be traced back to research it sponsored. Stephen Barr, on whose column I focused in that blog, wrote this about the agency:

“Unlike most federal agencies, DARPA operates with little red tape. It has only two management layers, encouraging the rapid flow of ideas and decisions. About 240 people work at DARPA, and 120 of them are program managers and office directors on appointments of four to six years. The agency does not own or operate labs, but sponsors research carried out by industry and universities. By rotating technical professionals every few years, DARPA has ‘a constant freshness of people and energy,’ Tether said. ‘Everything else we do stems from that.'”

Apparently the intelligence community has suffered from “agency envy” and it has now established an R&D activity of its own [“Intelligence Agency Joins U-Md. Research Center,” by Anita Huslin, Washington Post, 15 June 2008].

‘The University of Maryland’s newest tenant is not in the business of advertising its existence or its work. The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity is the new corollary of the military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, created in 1958 in the wake of the Sputnik launch to develop new defense technologies. Among other things, DARPA’s work led to the development of the Internet, global positioning systems and unmanned aircraft. IARPA is expected to perform similar work for the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies.”

The intelligence community certainly has a requirement for an advanced research arm. Obtaining, sharing, and analyzing data so that it can be turned into actionable intelligence has always been a daunting challenge. In the information age, it has become almost impossible to keep up with the mountains of data that can be generated and with the technologies potential adversaries can use to conceal their activities. Don’t expect to hear a lot of fanfare about IARPA. It will gladly operate as quietly as DARPA has operated over the past fifty years.

“IARPA is temporarily located in the university’s Center for Advanced Study of Language, which is supported by the National Security Agency and, among other things, teaches Arabic to Iraq-bound Marines and researches cross-cultural interrogation techniques. Ground is expected to be broken this summer on IARPA’s new digs: a 120,000-square-foot sensitive compartmentalized information facility designed to provide the highest level of security for government intelligence work. It will be in the university’s M Square research park, just off campus. Similar to DARPA, in a nondescript, unlabeled brick building in Arlington, IARPA is not expected to advertise its presence, nor are officials permitted to discuss any details about it.”

Although it may conduct its business quietly, its economic impact on the university and the surrounding community is expected to be big.

“This is what the region’s first research park has been waiting for, members of the university and research community say. ‘Projections are, it’s going to become an enormous enterprise and there will be undoubtedly lots of companies, both as contractors and otherwise, that will locate around the building,’ said William E. Kirwin, chancellor of the University of Maryland system. ‘I think it will be substantial,’ University of Maryland president C.D. Mote Jr. said of the new IARPA presence. ‘This is expected to be the premier supporter of the most advanced thinking in far-reaching intelligence research — new stuff that hasn’t been thought of.'”

It’s not just that intelligence community is establishing a research activity that is generating all of this enthusiasm it’s the fact that it is bringing money with it.

“What does that mean in terms of budgets, employees, contracting jobs? No one at the university can say. And the agency’s new director, who just recently put up help-wanted postings on the Internet for her top three project management jobs, is not available to talk about it, according to a spokeswoman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The organization’s budget is classified. In seeking congressional funding for the agency, officials last year said that IARPA will be significantly smaller than DARPA, which has a $3 billion annual budget. Its staff will consist of 35 national intelligence and 21 CIA employees, and research will be outsourced to contractors. Focuses will be language processing, quantum science, nanotechnology, biometrics, deception detection, counter-biological warfare and tagging, tracking and locating.”

According to Huslin, IARPA will operate using the same philosophy embraced by DARPA. It will promote high risk, high payoff ideas.

“Last month, in an interview with the technology trade group IEEE, IARPA Director Lisa Porter suggested that the agency’s new location at the University of Maryland indicates that it will be open to people and organizations, like academia and industry, that traditionally may not be able to access the intelligence research world. ‘It sends a nice message that we’re embracing the broad community to help us solve these challenging problems,’ she told the IEEE. ‘This is a great place for people with a great idea. It’s really risky, the potential payoff is huge, and failure is okay — that kind of environment is pretty hard to find.'”

Porter is right that it is difficult to find an environment where failing is “okay.” Every credible study about innovative organizations concludes, however, that failure must be viewed as part of the learning process if the organization is going to foster an environment where people feel secure in pursuing their wildest ideas. Such an environment will attract innovative people like moths to a flame and that is exactly what the intelligence community is hoping to do. I suspect that the innovations that come out of IARPA will have an impact far beyond the confines of the intelligence community. That has certainly been the case with DARPA innovations.

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