Using a new laptop and a satellite link, FBI agents can find out within two minutes whether the fingerprint from a newly captured suspect overseas matches a terrorist database in Virginia.
Intelligence officials are running documents in languages such as Arabic through a new computer program called “English Now.” It converts the foreign characters into the Roman alphabet and makes words such as Baghdad, President Bush or Osama bin Laden jump out to spies who can’t read Arabic.
The language software and the fingerprint-recognition system are examples of new spy gear that the national intelligence director’s office bought last year. They may seem like tools that should have been available years ago, but the government isn’t noted for its ability to quickly develop new technology. A fledging center called IARPA is hoping to change that. The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity will try to develop groundbreaking technology for the 16 spy agencies.
One potential tool sounds like it comes from an episode of “Star Trek”: cloaking technology that can bend radar around an object to make it appear it’s not there. Others include power sources shrunk using nanotechnology and quantum computers that can speed code-breaking, says IARPA acting director Steve Nixon.
“The world has changed in dramatic ways with globalization of technology,” Nixon said in an interview. “These are the things that might not get done otherwise.”
Resistance exists — is it futile?
But not everyone is convinced this is the right way to make new spy tools. The House Intelligence Committee has questions about whether the government truly needs it.
“Much of this research is already going on,” said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee’s panel on technical intelligence. She said IARPA raises questions about the role of new National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell, who was supposed to coordinate U.S. intelligence agencies — not get into their daily operations.
“Is it to fund these things and pull them into the DNI’s office and give itself its own turf and projects and pet rocks?” she asked.
There is even resistance within the CIA itself, according to officials who spoke about the concerns privately. The agency gets money that is supposed to go for spy tools that can be shared across the government. CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano denied any friction, saying the agency welcomes ideas that promote collaboration on new technology.
Following in gee-whiz footsteps
In the last half-century, U.S. spy agencies have made technical breakthroughs large and small. In the 1970s, the CIA shared its lithium-iodine batteries with the medical field, which now uses them in pacemakers. Its scientists developed microdot cameras that can produce images so small that they can be hidden in the period of this sentence. They also built a life-size robotic dragonfly that could have been used for surveillance, if only it could have handled crosswinds.
If IARPA can clear some crucial hurdles, including convincing its congressional skeptics, the new office will be modeled after a similar agency that develops gee-whiz toys for the Pentagon.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was created after the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, driving home the U.S. competitive disadvantage in space. Since then, DARPA researchers have brought the United States much-heralded advances including stealth technology, global positioning systems and the Internet.
But it also brought controversy. The agency’s Total Information Awareness data-mining program was launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to use technology to find terrorists; critics saw it as a step toward Big Brother-style mass government surveillance. Congress eliminated the program’s funding at DARPA in 2003, but portions were moved to secret accounts at other agencies.
Competing approaches to research
The new intelligence organization will be significantly smaller than DARPA, which has a $3 billion annual budget. It will be based at the University of Maryland and staffed with 56 intelligence professionals from the CIA and from McConnell’s organization.
Rather than funding IARPA in the House intelligence budget bill passed this month, lawmakers directed technology dollars to centers developing tools that can be shared across government, including offices within the CIA, National Security Agency and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
The measure included criticism of McConnell’s office for failing to provide details on how IARPA will work and raised questions about whether it would harm existing research for spy tools.
Nixon says IARPA won’t have labs and electron microscopes, but will sponsor research at universities, national labs and other organizations.
IARPA is thinking broadly, he said. It won’t limit itself to hard sciences, but will also tackle social-science problems such as finding tools for language research or to help analysts measure cultural habits of another society. He also said the organization will work on privacy protection. NSA and other agencies want to be able to make better use of foreign intelligence information from overseas, which often contains information on U.S. citizens.
Given the lack of oversight in intelligence agencies, “this is an area where the research community has to step gingerly,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.