Even Spies Go to Trade Conferences

By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 13, 2008; D01

The spies and contractors stood side-by-side, pressing by a crowd of pitchmen at the Ronald Reagan Building.

It was an unusual gathering, a trade show and conference organized by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to promote using open sources of information such as the Internet and television broadcasts as part of the intelligence process.

Judging from the packed seminars and the crowds collecting corporate brochures, mints and pens in the exhibition hall, most everybody was there to do business.

Booz Allen Hamilton offered a service called InTrack to help collect, monitor and process data collected from the Internet and other sources. LexisNexis promoted a system for sending automated warnings of trouble abroad. There were companies selling translation systems, Web search tools and data-mining supercomputers. One of the more popular booths was Google's, though exactly what it wanted to sell the intelligence community was not clear.

"Demand is huge," said Premkumar Natarajan, vice president of BBN Technologies, which sells to the government automated translation systems that scan satellite transmissions of foreign television and radio programs. "People always needed to know more. After 9/11, they acknowledged they needed to know more."

The gathering reflected the intelligence community's evolution since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Unlike Cold War-era spies, intelligence analysts and government policymakers can no longer rely primarily on cloak-and-dagger operations to keep track of global threats. Now, like businesses and other organizations, they're increasingly turning to the torrents of information available on the Internet and through other non-classified sources.

The heavy presence of contractors, both in the exhibition halls and seminar rooms, also shows the growing reliance on the private sector. About 70 percent of more than $50 billion in annual spending on intelligence now goes to corporations for everything from major computer systems to heating bills. As many as 37,000 contract employees work alongside up to 100,000 government intelligence workers, according to a recent government survey.

Mark Lowenthal, a former assistant CIA director for analysis and production, said the government trails far behind the private sector in creating new technologies that are adopted by intelligence agencies. "Those guys have more motivation and more skill," Lowenthal, who now runs the private Intelligence and Security Academy, said about technology entrepreneurs.

The makeup of the corporate crowd in the exhibition hall, along with the demand to get into the conference, spoke volumes about the growing intelligence market and the changes in the craft of intelligence itself. A thousand people were on the waiting list to attend.

One of the central messages from some vendors was that information on the Internet now provides most of the clues that law enforcement and intelligence officials need to do their jobs.

"It's virtually impossible to keep tabs on potential threats without finding a way to efficiently and effectively monitor the internet for content and persons of interest," said a brochure for RiverGlass, a technology firm.

Booz Allen's InTrack service seems to derive almost oracular insights of the sort government leaders crave. The impact of a tsunami in Taiwan on global communications? The fallout from a spike in tuberculosis? Links between unexplained incidents and terrorism? "InTrack's mission is to collect, monitor, process, and combine data with existing 'trusted' sources and baseline patterns to perform robust analyses," the company's flier says.

At the LexisNexis station, a slick brochure touted a "data analytics supercomputer" as an instant solution to intelligence dilemmas. The brochure claims the system can manage hundreds of terabytes of data -- the equivalent of many times all the holdings in the Library of Congress. "Unparalleled linking technology and analysis uncovers key connections and relationships," it says.

The Google booth displayed a high-definition video of a virtual car driving through an exact digital representation of San Francisco -- streets, buildings and all. But Google exhibitors said they were not allowed to tell a reporter why the company was there or what it did for intelligence or anything else. Visitors from the Pentagon, Marine Corps and Army Joint Information Operations Warfare Command stopped by.

Some conference participants and speakers said they aren't surprised by the growing presence of contractors.

"The essence of what this is about is how to provide those critical insights for officials facing life and death situations," said Jennifer Sims, a speaker at the conference on Thursday and director of intelligence studies at Georgetown University.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company