New Agency IARPA Develops Spy Tools
Thursday, May 31, 2007; 4:23 AM
WASHINGTON -- 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."
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.
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.