Hey, Let's Play Ball
The insular world of intelligence reaches out for a few new ideas
At a modest office building just outside Boston last July, senior U.S. intelligence officials quietly set in motion an unusual experiment. For four weeks, a handpicked group of 20 outside experts brainstormed, argued, and chewed the fat with 20 top analysts from the CIA and eight other intelligence agencies. Their mission: to understand why people join terrorist organizations and other groups engaged in antisocial activity. The issues went to some of the most basic questions confronting Washington's intelligence mandarins: What's driving the spread of extremism around the globe, and how can it be stopped?
Dubbed the Summer Hard Problems workshop, or SHARP, the program is modeled after a highly successful project by the code-breaking National Security Agency, which for years has brought in top mathematicians to tackle cutting-edge issues in encryption. SHARP similarly threw together leading specialists, but from the social sciences: experts in anthropology, social psychology, insurgency, and Islamic thought, among other fields. But for all the esoteric talk about jihadism, group dynamics, and social networks, the SHARP participants had a second mission: to change the way U.S. intelligence agencies do their job, by opening the notoriously insular espionage community to the rest of the world.
SHARP is the brainchild of the 18-month-old Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is charged with overseeing and reforming the nation's sprawling $44 billion intelligence community. Key to that effort is an organized attack on the kind of "groupthink" that resulted in U.S. intelligence agencies getting dead wrong, among other things, nearly every facet of Saddam Hussein's banned weapons programs. Reformers at the DNI and other agencies hope to answer critics who call the nation's spy agencies obsolete-a bunch of big bureaucracies so addicted to secrecy that they can't cope in the Internet age. "This culture of secrecy in an information-rich world is totally anachronistic," says Phil Williams, an international security expert at the University of Pittsburgh who often consults with intelligence agencies.
Wiki-spies? To help change the way the nation's espionage agencies do business, senior DNI officials are pushing an effort unlike any seen since the height of the Vietnam War, nearly 40 years ago. The SHARP workshop is but one of a wide array of outreach projects now underway, involving millions of dollars in contracts, fellowships, conferences-even wikis and blogs-directed at scholars and other outside experts. DNI officials are mindful of the past, when Vietnam War-era funding drew loud protests on campus, amid charges that the CIA had skewed academic research on Asian studies and secretly backed groups like the National Student Association. The new effort has also begun to stir controversy, but for those who respond, the rewards can be considerable, including contracts, lucrative stipends, and a chance to influence analysis at the CIA and 15 other intelligence agencies. The scope is broad: A classified DNI survey this year yielded 240 pages of outreach efforts involving virtually every U.S. agency that generates intelligence information. Those interested (and invited) enter a world of exclusive conferences, workshops, studies, sabbaticals, and scholarships. Participants include not only academics but experts at think tanks, international groups, foundations, and businesses, as well as medical doctors and scientists. "The intelligence community will never be big enough, will never have enough analysts," says Thomas Fingar, the DNI's chief of analysis. "There's an absolute need to go outside."
Fingar's office is spearheading the charge. The DNI's new plan, "A Strategy for Analytic Outreach," reviewed by U.S. News, calls for a major effort at building "communities of interest" with outside experts and revamping security regulations to allow far greater contact with the outside world. Fingar hopes to replicate what he accomplished as head of the State Department's small but respected intelligence arm, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. INR is widely credited with having gotten issues right that other agencies missed and having provided some of the government's only skeptical reporting on Saddam's banned weapons. A key reason for INR's success, Fingar says, is its marked openness compared with most other intelligence agencies. Last year, the bureau held 280 conferences and seminars with outside experts-nearly one a day. "Part of INR's success was their Rolodexes," says Fingar. "The intelligence community can't stay closed and do its job."
Going Hollywood. CIA officials are taking the cue and expanding their outreach efforts. "It's part of the job," says one official. "You're expected to reach out." CIA analysts last year met with academics and outside experts at some 100 conferences or meetings each month, according to the agency's chief of intelligence, John Kringen. Among the more active groups: the CIA's secretive Red Cell unit, formed after 9/11 to think up "out of the box" scenarios, and the little-known Global Futures Partnership, which runs a handful of invitation-only conferences around the world to look at long-term trends and strategic issues. With Rand, the GFP ran a series of one-day workshops on how to encourage critical analysis, bringing in over 30 outside experts from fields as varied as artificial intelligence, diplomatic history, and cognitive psychology. Also active is the CIA's Office of Transnational Issues, whose conferences have focused on infectious diseases, "unconventional" security threats, and U.S. global competitiveness in information technology. The CIA has also sponsored a Cyber-Influence Conference Series, which has met, among other places, in Hollywood to discuss the "strategic use" of the Internet, computer games, movies, and entertainment against U.S. adversaries.
Despite all the efforts at outreach, the push to gain outside expertise remains controversial. Distrust of outsiders is rife among many intelligence professionals, who are fearful of violating secrecy pledges and tend to discount information not marked classified or secret. Some also worry about openly expressing their views at a time when intelligence work has become something of a political football. Take, for example, a recent conference on Vietnam sponsored by the CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence and Texas Tech University. Analysts at the center slated to attend were warned not to make comparisons to Iraq, sources tell U.S. News.
Many outside experts, too, are wary of contact with intelligence agencies, worried that such ties will discredit them, imperil their work, or skew scholarship. Among the hot buttons: CIA sponsorship of social scientists' work abroad. Critics say this kind of contracting, now being pushed by some in the intelligence world, risks endangering scholars' sources and informants, while tainting fieldwork by American researchers around the world.
The concern over intelligence work is particularly acute among the nation's 15,000 anthropologists, whose overseas fieldwork and language skills are of special value to U.S. intelligence. The American Anthropological Association has pulled a CIA recruiting ad from its website and recently launched a commission to investigate the field's ties to U.S. intelligence. "I have one issue with all this: secrecy," says David Price of St. Martin's College, a critic of the growing ties and author of the forthcoming Anthropology at War, a study of the field's work during World War II. "My worry is what happens to our entire discipline when the notion of being involved in secrecy or covert operations gets in the mix."
Bad old days. Another point of contention is scholarships funded by the intelligence community. At least three scholarship programs are doling out millions of dollars to prospective analysts and spies-up to $25,000 annually per student-for study of key languages and regions such as China, central Asia, and the Middle East. One particularly controversial scholarship is the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program, which funds about 100 students. It has been denounced by some scholars because its recipients perform internships at intelligence agencies and remain unidentified to professors and classmates-a reminder for some of the bad old days of the 1960s, when the FBI and CIA kept tabs on the political views of U.S. professors. Critics like Price also argue that rather than opening intelligence-agency minds, the scholarships may have the opposite effect, pigeonholing young scholars prematurely and fostering the very kind of groupthink that reformers hope to avoid.
Along with money for intelligence training and study, other funds are pouring into campuses for homeland security and terrorism studies. The National Academic Consortium for Homeland Security, founded in 2003, now counts over 350 member colleges and universities. The Department of Homeland Security is putting $82 million into a half-dozen universities, funding so-called Centers of Excellence that look at security issues and counterterrorism strategy. The DNI is considering whether to expand the idea across the intelligence community, with other agencies funding similar centers.
The ties between academia and the intelligence community have long blown hot and cold. As many as half of America's anthropologists joined the war effort during the 1940s, working for military intelligence and the CIA's predecessor, the Office of Special Services. Both the OSS and the early CIA drew heavily from Ivy League faculty among various departments. But during the Vietnam War, anthropologists were implicated in work on classified projects linked to counterinsurgency operations in Thailand. The resulting firestorm prompted ethics rules within the profession, prohibiting secret research or reports.
"Streetcraft." The DNI's Fingar is sympathetic to such concerns. The new outreach effort, he says, "has to be 100 percent transparent. There'll be no effort to trick somebody." But transparency and intelligence work don't typically go hand in hand. The problems were readily apparent at the SHARP workshop, where suggestions of intelligence agency funding of fieldwork raised alarm among some scholars. The DNI allowed U.S. News to observe several days of the workshop, with the understanding that no participants be identified by name. "Most scholars are unwilling to admit to any dealings whatsoever with the intel community," confided one anthropologist in attendance. "The reason is that the connection, at least in anthro, is so reviled that it can negatively impact one's career."
The SHARP workshop offered a glimpse into other challenges posed by the new outreach. Outside experts were given basic clearances-at the secret level-for three of the gathering's four weeks. During the one unclassified week, intelligence analysts avoided making presentations and generally steered clear of anyone from overseas. One National Security Agency analyst, asked by U.S. News where she worked, froze in place and tensely replied, "The U.S. government." Others declined even to admit what fields they worked in. "It was hardly the stuff of open, honest discourse," said one discouraged professor. But other scholars were more enthusiastic, particularly once this reporter and the foreign guests departed. The monthlong effort ended up producing 47 unclassified papers and 10 classified ones, with most attendees saying they would eagerly participate again. New SHARP workshops are being planned that may focus on "medical intelligence"-how to best detect disease outbreaks and bioterrorism attacks, for example-and on crossover "streetcraft" techniques useful for police detectives, FBI agents, and intelligence operatives.
While questions persist within academia, intelligence officials have found a warmer reception within the business community. Many of the programs are classified, involving sensitive operations like companies offering nonofficial cover to CIA officers abroad and NSA eavesdroppers gaining access to company communications. But a glimpse at the extent of cooperation can be seen at In-Q-Tel, the unique venture-capital firm set up by the CIA in 1999 to invest in cutting-edge technologies. Since 9/11, business at In-Q-Tel has boomed. Its budget has soared, and its backers now include most of the nation's intelligence agencies. "We've had such a surge of people trying to do whatever they could," says Scott Yancey, In-Q-Tel's senior executive officer. "There's been a huge push to find new technologies."
In the year before 9/11, In-Q-Tel received some 600 submissions from private companies for funding. In the year after the attacks, it received 1,600, and that number has kept pace today. In-Q-Tel has reviewed nearly 6,000 business plans and invested in over 90 firms, most of them since 9/11. Most had never worked with the U.S. government before. In the process, the company has brought together hundreds of high-tech entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, university researchers, and U.S. intelligence officials. Yancey sees little of the caution that exists in academia. "The business community," he says, "is pumped up when they see the opportunity to serve the country."
Even for skeptical scholars, the temptation to lend their expertise to an intelligence community asking for help may be hard to resist. Brown University anthropologist William Beeman says he has done seminars under every administration since the Carter presidency and feels his efforts are now more important than ever. Given Washington's recent record of glaring intelligence failures, he adds, "I am very disposed to doing anything I can to bring some enlightenment to these people."
This story appears in the November 6, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.