MR. IGNATIUS: Welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m David Ignatius, a columnist for The Post. Today we are going to focus on public service with two people who served our country in significant ways. First Bob Gates, former CIA director and defense secretary who spent a half century in public service. And later in our program we will talk with Dr. Stefanie Tompkins, who is director of DARPA.

But let's start with Secretary Gates. Welcome back to Washington Post Live, Mr. Secretary. Good to see you.

MR. GATES: Thanks, David. It's great to see you.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, Secretary Gates, you started working for the CIA back in 1966 while you were studying at Indiana University. You took a stint to serve in the Air Force, then came back to the CIA. Tell us what drew you to public service in the first place.

MR. GATES: Well, I was at the Russian and East European Institute at Indiana University, earning a master's degree, and the CIA recruiter showed up on campus. That was back in the day when that was still possible. Happily, we are back in better days. And to tell you the truth, I met with the recruiter mainly as a lark, in the hope of getting a free trip to Washington, D.C. But when they actually offered me a job, I think because I had been studying the Soviet Union, and this was really at the height of the Cold War, I decided that I would try that for a while and perhaps do my bit in the Cold War, in the struggle against the Soviet Union.

So it really was an outgrowth of my academic focus. I thought I would teach in college, but when the opportunity came to work for the Agency, I agreed to do that. I never really anticipated that it would be a career, to tell you the truth, but it was so interesting, and they just kept offering me interesting jobs, then all of a sudden it was a quarter of a century later.

MR. IGNATIUS: So tell our audience, the Cold War is now long past, thank goodness. The motivation that you felt as a young man isn't present in the same way. What would you say to young people in terms of what would motivate them today to think about a career in public service?

MR. GATES: Well, the struggle for democracy, particularly in the foreign policy arena, the struggle for democracy is still as important and clearly as needed today as it was in the mid-1960s. And so partly there is the idealistic aspect of, first of all, how can I protect democracy here at home, how can I advance democracy and human rights abroad.

But there is also the other side of it is the opportunity to serve this country and to advance our interests. You know, we've got a lot of division today, a lot of polarization, even paralysis, but the fact is, you know, most people would not choose to live in any other country. And so how do we protect our own interests? How do we protect our own democracy? These are all idealistic reasons for going into public service, in addition to the more personal aspect of it, that it's actually just a very gratifying and personally satisfying way to spend part of your life.

MR. IGNATIUS: Let's talk about the CIA for a minute, where you spent so much of your career. How do you think the agency has done in holding onto its public service ethos, and in particular, Mr. Secretary, I have to ask you what you felt when you heard President Trump and people around him attack the CIA as part of a "deep state" that they were arguing people should be suspicious of? What would you say in response to that?

MR. GATES: Well, you know, I, like most career people at CIA, have been through many ups and downs, the investigations of the mid-1970s. CIA has never, shall we say, gotten a great press in this country, at least not in the last 40 years or so. So most people who work for the agency are accustomed to those ups and downs in public perceptions.

The truth is it never hurt our recruiting, and what really mattered, in terms of morale, was whether or not what we were doing was valued. And although we would get bad press, and although there would be congressional investigations and so on, the fact is most presidents found the agency and the work that it did, both the analytical work, the espionage, and what was going on around the world, as well as the clandestine part and covert action, to be of value. And as long as the president thinks what you're doing is important and of value, then sort of the external ups and down really are less important.

MR. IGNATIUS: And to people who worry about a "deep state" with the intelligence agencies at the center of it, what is the Bob Gates answer?

MR. GATES: [Laughs.] Well, the Bob Gates answer is that I've been a part of those agencies for a long time, and the notion that they could conspire or collaborate with one another, both within a single agency and between one agency and others, is laughable on its face.

You know, as CIA director and then as secretary of defense I heard a lot about conspiracy theories and so on, and I always thought it was laughable, because first of all, no one in Washington can keep a secret. If there was actually a conspiracy or some kind of "deep state" trying to program or plan something, the notion that it wouldn't leak is totally contrary to every experience of the last half a century. Either somebody would leak it because they didn't want to be a part of it, or somebody would think there was a lot of money in being able to write an article or a book about it.

So I think--I, in fact, wish that there were better collaboration and cooperation among the agencies of the federal government, and particularly those dealing with foreign threats and with domestic threats. The fact is one of the reasons for 9/11 was the absence of such collaboration between domestic and foreign policy agencies.

MR. IGNATIUS: I want to ask you about some questions in the news, which are the sorts of things that people think about, young people think about, when they are considering working for the government. Let's start with Afghanistan. You were secretary of defense for nearly five years of that war. I remember traveling, as a journalist, with you a bunch of times to Afghanistan. I remember your comments. I want to ask you what you felt in August, with the fall of the Ghani government, the Taliban taking over in Kabul, our somewhat chaotic retreat. You lived this war as secretary of defense. What did you feel watching that?

MR. GATES: Well, particularly the events surrounding the Kabul airport really left me feeling pretty low. You know, two different presidents, one Republican and one Democrat, made the decision, elected by the American people, and they made the decision it was time for the United States to leave. We can argue about whether leaving 2,500 or 3,500 or a few more soldiers in Kabul, or in Afghanistan for a protracted time might or might not have been the right policy for us to follow, but here you have two presidents of different parties that have made this decision.

What was unnecessary, in my view, was the way it turned out. It didn't have to end that way. And beginning with President Trump's decision, or his deal with the Taliban in February of 2020, the planning for an evacuation, not just of the Americans but of the Afghans who had helped us, should have begun right then, in terms of making contact with these people, getting their contact information, perhaps getting biometrics on them, getting visas prepared, and then figuring out contingency plans where you could have multiple evacuation points so we weren't limited to the airport in Kabul.

So there was a lot of time where planning should have taken place, because it doesn't take great intelligence, just plain common sense to understand that if we announce we are leaving altogether, and we are taking with us the maintenance, the logistics, and so on, all those capabilities that had enabled the Afghan military, the notion that things would not go downhill pretty quickly, I think, is naïve. And whether it took two weeks or two months or a year, it was pretty clear the direction events were going to go in Afghanistan, and we should have prepared for that, and we had a lot of time to prepare for it, under two different presidents.

MR. IGNATIUS: A question that's very much on our minds this week is Russia, Russian troops poised on the border of Ukraine. Russia was an area of your specialization as a CIA analyst. You know Russia as well as anybody that I talk to. What's your reading of the situation? What do you think Putin is up to, and do you think an actual Russian move in the Ukraine is likely?

MR. GATES: I think Putin loves keeping the West and the United States in a state of, to quote from Mel Brooks, "high anxiety." And he loves us not knowing what he's going to do next. He loves us getting all ginned up and worrying and making lots of public statements about things where it's not clear what we would do even if they did act.

Whether or not they will move into eastern Ukraine, you know, I would be surprised, because I think that would have significant consequences for Russia, particularly on the economic side. But I know our military is very concerned about that presence of 100,000 Russian soldiers on the border of eastern Ukraine and the capabilities that they have. And the Afghan army, about half the Afghan army is pretty forward deployed, to about 50,000 people.

MR. IGNATIUS: The Ukrainian army.

MR. GATES: The Ukrainian army--I'm sorry--is forward deployed, and a pincer movement could do some serious damage there. So I think our military is very concerned, if Putin did decide to act, what he would be able to do. But I think he also sees this as a way of continuing to gin up nationalism in Ukraine. He points to U.S. and British and other naval activity in the Black Sea and the U.S. helping Ukraine and so on. And so he uses this at home to try and justify both his repression at home and his behavior toward the West. And whether it's going along with Belarusian leader Lukashenko in terms of creating problems on the Polish border with refugees from Iraq and elsewhere, whether it's pressuring the Baltic states, as I said at the outset, he likes to keep the West in a state of high anxiety about what he is trying to do, what he has up his sleeve.

At the end of the day, though, he is a classic bully, and we haven't quite figured out how to push back on him and how to make him understand that there are consequences for him as well as for Russia of his aggressive behavior. And so I think the worry about Ukraine is justified. The question is whether he actually pulls the trigger. And frankly, I think a major military move into eastern Ukraine, I would say the odds are against that, but I wouldn't bet a lot of money against it.

MR. IGNATIUS: Really help again. No one whose judgment about this is more useful than Secretary Gates'.

Let me ask you, before we return directly to public service, about another issue that young people think about, and that's the U.S. relationship with China. President Biden this week had a Zoom summit, if you will, with Xi Jinping. I'm curious about whether you are worried that China, under President Xi, may move sooner rather than later to try to reunify Taiwan. He said he doesn't want to do it by force, but he clearly is determined to do it. Is that something that you think we can address better than we are doing now?

MR. GATES: Well, I think the likelihood of an actual full-scale invasion of Taiwan, the odds of that are pretty low right now. First of all, the Chinese have a very limited amphibious capability. They have barely exercised it. This would be an operation sort of on the scale of D-Day, and there are so many other tools that he has available to him to bring pressure on Taiwan that do not involve a high risk of war with either Taiwan or the United States, or both. And by the way, a large-scale war would very likely bring in the Japanese, the Australians, and other countries as well, so it wouldn't necessarily just be the United States.

But he has the cyber capabilities essentially to cripple Taiwan. He has the ability, economic ability, to bring great pressure to bear because of the extensive economic connections between Taiwan and the mainland. He has the ability to bring great economic pressure to bear. If he wanted to be even more aggressive, he could potentially seize one or more small Taiwanese islands that are actually quite close to the Chinese coast. The United States, nor Taiwan, I suspect, would go to war for those, but it would be what I call a nibbling strategy that would send a signal, "I'm coming" or "We're coming," but at very low risk of conflict. Or if he wanted to be especially aggressive, he could impose some sort of quarantine, a naval quarantine, around Taiwan, and dare the United States to break it. In other words, it would be the United States starting a conflict by challenging an economic blockade of Taiwan.

So there are a number of tools, short of an outright invasion, that Xi has available to him, and with the economic pressures that he is beginning to deal with at home, with the Olympics coming up, and so on, I think a war, risking a major war is pretty low on his priority list, but there a lot of ways in which he can bring a lot of pressure to bear on Taiwan.

MR. IGNATIUS: Let's go back to our main subject today and that's public service. As you said at the outset, Mr. Secretary, this is a time of great polarization in our country. Washington is unpopular, to put it mildly. So in a sense it's a period when there is a disinclination to come work for the government. You have lived through other periods when there was similar turn away from the government, after the Vietnam War, after Watergate. We recovered from those periods. What do you see as the path back toward making government service, making Washington a more attractive idea for young people?

MR. GATES: Well, I think the message has to start at the top, David. You know, the last ten presidents, just two actually encouraged young people to go into public service: President Kennedy's inaugural address, where he talked about, "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country." That inspired me. And then George H. W. Bush and his consistent message that public service, as he put it, was "a noble calling." Most other presidents have actually run against the very government that they want to lead. And so a message from the president that public service is important, that serving your country is important, and not just in the military--they often will say that--but in terms of the rest of the government, whether it's the State Department, the intelligence community, the domestic agencies, the law enforcement agencies, and so on.

So the message needs to come from the top. The same thing is true of members of Congress. When was the last time you heard a member of Congress talk about the importance of public service and of young people coming to serve their country and their fellow citizens?

So I think the message needs to start at the top, but I would also say that the leaders of various agencies have the opportunity to entice young people to come to work in those agencies, by showing that they know these institutions need to change, need to reform. I'm a big advocate of institutions. I talked about that in another interview a while back.

But all government agencies need to reform. They all are in need of change and adaptation and becoming more efficient, better serving people. And that's a message that can be sent to young people, saying, "Come be a part of this process. Come help us figure out how to serve the American people better." And I think that's a message of change and reform, come be a part of that. And I think that's an enticing message, rather than, as my friend, former Secretary of State Condi Rice would put it, come stamp visas for three years.

So I think there are opportunities for young people. I think young people bring a lot of fresh ideas, a lot of energy.

The sad thing is, David, right now only 6 percent of the federal workforce are under the age of 30. Nearly half of the workforce is over the age of 50. So something has to be done to change that demographic, and our leaders, our political leaders need to figure out a way on how you make public service and a role in the government more attractive to young people. And I think one of the messages is the inspirational message, "We can do this better. Come be a part of it."

MR. IGNATIUS: So let me just drill down on one thing that I hear from young people when we're talking about this issue, and that is that the rules for public servants can be so stringent, the scrutiny, sometimes the humiliation, that it's just not attractive to some people. So the question I'm curious about is how do you hold public servants accountable to do the public's business and still make this an attractive area where people want to serve, think it's fun, don't think that they're going to have their lives raked over the coals?

MR. GATES: Well, first of all, I think realistically that kind of treatment, which I guarantee you I know first-hand, really doesn't come along for quite some time in your career. I advise young people, you know, if that's the kind of thing that worries you, for the first ten years of your career you're not going to have to worry about that. You're going to be doing hard work, whether you're in the military or the State Department or the intelligence community. You're going to be focused entirely on doing what it is that you wanted to do when you joined that organization, and the politics that take place outside of that environment really are not going to directly affect you. I mean, it'll affect you when you read your Washington Post in the morning, and it may affect your morale about what you're doing. But in terms of your personal life, until you become a relatively senior person, you're not going to end up in the newspapers. You're not going to end up in front of a congressional hearing.

You know, it would be nice if Congress would treat the civil servants who come to testify in front of them, the senior civil servants and public servants, with a little more respect. But, you know, I started testifying in front of Congress probably 35 years ago, and there are some things that just don't change. And you just get used to it and you do have to get something of a thick skin.

But for young people, that's not going to be an issue for them, and they don't need to worry about that. what they need to focus on is what can I do to help, and the truth is, you know, a lot of young people today will come into government, serve for five or ten years, and then go do something else. So this will never actually come onto their radar screen, in a personal sense.

So I tell young people, don't worry about. If you want to be a Cabinet officer or a sub-Cabinet officer, yeah, at that point in your career you're going to have to face that reality, and it is a reality that's not going away. But for most of your career you're going to be focused on, I think, doing what you signed up to do in the first place and not have to worry about these extraneous things. And frankly, in terms of the rules and so on, I don't think that they're any more onerous than you would find in the private sector or a university or anyplace else.

MR. IGNATIUS: Fair point. Last quick question. You famously said in your memoir, "Duty," back in 2014, that Joe Biden, I think your phrase was, "has been wrong on nearly every major issue." So I want to ask you, you wrote that a while ago, how do you think he's doing as president? What would you say about his actual performance?

MR. GATES: Well, I would say it's mixed, David. I applaud his continuation of the emphasis on the Quad, in terms of Asia strategy, the relationship with India, Australia, and Japan. I think that's very important. I think that the move with Australia in terms of the nuclear submarines is a very strong, long-term strategic plus. I think that was a good decision. I think maintaining the tough line on both Russia and China has been the right thing to do.

I think Afghanistan was poorly handled, to put it mildly, the exit from Afghanistan. I think that the diplomacy surrounding the Australian submarine deal was unfortunate and probably was an unforced error. We could have probably done that in a way that didn't offend the French so deeply.

I think that the rhetoric of the administration toward our allies and reinforcing the notion that our alliances matter and that this is a huge advantage for the United States is important, but from the allies' standpoint it's also important that your actions match your words, and the way that the Australian sub deal was handled, the way that the Afghan evacuation was handled I think left a lot of our allies feeling like the rhetoric may have changed but the basic policy decision-making hasn't.

So I think it's a mixed record. You know, I think one of the key things going forward is going to be the China strategy and getting that out and having it be a comprehensive strategy that isn't just military but is also economic and focuses on strategic communications and all the other instruments of power.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, Mr. Secretary, it's always great to have a chance to talk to you, get straight-up answers to questions, so thank you so much for coming and joining us today on Washington Post Live.

I'll be back in a moment, actually a few moments, to continue the program with the director of DARPA, Dr. Stefanie Tompkins. Please stay with us.

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MS. MESERVE: Hello. I'm Jeanne Meserve. The federal workforce can be underappreciated and unfun. It is facing some challenges, some of which may not be obvious. Here with me to discuss is Shane Canfield, CEO of WAEPA.

We celebrated Veterans Day last week. I understand the holiday has special significance for your organization.

MR. CANFIELD: Yeah, it's great to be here. It does have special meaning. Veterans Day is to honor those who served in the Armed Forces, and we were formed not of Armed Forces but civilian feds serving the country overseas in war zones. War zones were excluded from life insurance policies at the time. The Federal Employee Benefits Program did not exist in 1943, and that came online in 1954. So they couldn't get life insurance. President Roosevelt saw this and said, "We have got to be able to provide a way for our nearly 30,000 civilian feds in the European theater and across the world with life insurance." That's the genesis of WAEPA. It was formed to serve civilian feds, and yes, they serve as well.

MS. MESERVE: Service a word we usually associated with the Armed Forces. Is it an appropriate word to use for the civilian workforce as well?

MR. CANFIELD: Absolutely. My father's generation was inspired deeply by JFK, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." And that single concept of service I saw with my own eyes, as a child, but I saw it, and I think all of us did who were around that era. Tens of thousands of Americans went to work for the federal government. It's a service-to-country model. How can we renew that high calling to service today? How can we inspire the next generation?

We do have some challenges. We've got pay and benefits, but we've got the baby boomer generation is, after some delay from COVID, is starting to retire. They are taking their knowledge, their experience, their professional footprint, if you will, away. How are we going to get the next generation of civilian feds in place? How are we going to compensate them? How are we going to be competitive? And I think larger than that is how do we instill that service-to-country mentality? I think that needs some work, but we can do it.

MS. MESERVE: How many civilian federal employees are there?

MR. CANFIELD: It's the largest employer in the country, as you might well imagine. There are roughly 2 million full-time civilian feds, another 3 million DoD, 600,000 postal workers. Depending on how you count the numbers, that goes up a little bit if you add part-time and seasonal. But it's the largest employer, by far. They accept and they understand this call to service and this mission that they have, and I'm thrilled that we can serve them.

MS. MESERVE: From your vantage point, what does the future of the federal workforce look like?

MR. CANFIELD: I would like to say that at this point the administration does have the federal workforce focus. I think that's clear. We've seen that in actions, not just in words, but in legislation and changes. I think that there's going to be a lot of change, and COVID fundamentally changed the notion of work for the entire nation, of course not just the federal government but the federal government as well. How are we going to manage fulfilling the mission, working remotely, working out of the office--there are many different names for this. But I think that over time we will solve this, but the nature of the mission hasn't changed. I know federal employees still want to deliver on their promises to the American people, and they will.

MS. MESERVE: Leadership is critical, of course. How have you been leading your organization through the pandemic?

MR. CANFIELD: As a life insurance organization, we are a nonprofit but we still have the actuarial and the financial model that a for-profit insurance company would have. We're designed for catastrophic losses. We stress-test our business regularly. We make sure we are, in our case, extremely well-reserved to be able to handle it. We're making financial commitments to pay claims 10, 20, 30 years from now. We have to get it right, and we do.

So we made it through the pandemic quite well. Of course, it's a horrible event, but this is the business that we are in, to make sure that we're there to pay claims, and we did just that.

MS. MESERVE: Shane Canfield, CEO of WAEPA, thanks so much for joining us.

And now back to The Washington Post.

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MR. IGNATIUS: Hello. For those of you just joining us I'm David Ignatius, a columnist at The Washington Post. I want to continue our program with the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Dr. Stefanie Tompkins. Welcome to Washington Post Live, Dr. Tompkins.

DR. TOMPKINS: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here.

MR. IGNATIUS: So to resume the discussion that I was having with Bob Gates about public service let me ask you about your own story. You were born in South Korea, where your dad was a U.S. Army officer. You graduated from Princeton with a degree in geology and geophysics. Then you went into the Army as an intelligence officer. Through that there's a line to your present job of a commitment to public service. Explain where that came from. Why were you motivated to work for this country?

DR. TOMPKINS: Well, I think it does naturally fall from that start that you mentioned, which is that I come from a military family. And so I also lived overseas for a good chunk of my childhood, and so you have a really interesting perspective on the role of the United States in the world and the fact that the people who serve the government are ultimately serving the nation and hopefully benefitting, you know, the world as a whole. But it's always been a pretty natural fit from that perspective.

Later on, I did have an opportunity to work for about a decade in industry before I first came to DARPA, and I think one of the things that struck me is that while I loved the fascination and some of the interesting science challenges of working industry, you feel much more empowered to make a difference, certainly in DARPA, and in public service, I hope, in general. And so for me it's been a little bit addictive.

MR. IGNATIUS: So, Dr. Tompkins, DARPA lives off brainpower as much as any part of the U.S. government. Tell us some of the ways that you're trying to stimulate the creative thinking that DARPA needs. I know you've wanted to bring to DARPA a little bit of the startup culture that's been so successful in our technology industry. Tell us how you're trying to do that.

DR. TOMPKINS: Well, I should start by saying that DARPA is really an extraordinary organization to begin with. So this is an organization that is somewhat director-proof in the fact that its culture, very much because of the authorities we have and because of the fairly rapid turnover rate we have among people, so that nobody has a chance to, you know, kind of permanently embed themselves and build walls, is something that is already incredibly precious. And so a big part of my job is to make sure that we keep that, but at the same time that we keep up with changing technology, with changing demographics and populations and people and things like that.

So, you know, an example of one of the things that I'm doing--and I have to say, ironically, it's somewhat enabled by COVID--is looking much more at allowing DARPA program managers--these are our technologists who create and execute on new technology ideas--to work remotely, potentially for the majority of their DARPA career. So we are based in Washington, D.C., and we have historically said DARPA is sufficiently amazing that you should be willing to drop everything and bring your family to Washington for four years, and at the end of four years we will kick you out, but that should be more than worth it.

And I think one of the things we have recognized is that no matter how amazing we are, we're asking people to give up a whole lot, particularly when they're trying to balance family and other kinds of priorities. So we have had a lot of experience in the last year and a half that's allowed us to experiment with people working remotely.

I should say, by the way, I realize this may not seem radical to a lot of other places, but for us, and particularly for an organization that has really lived off of this culture of people bouncing ideas off of each other, you know, spontaneously, it's a pretty big move, but it's definitely one that we think will help us keep up and allow us to recruit amazing people that we might have missed before.

MR. IGNATIUS: People sometimes, Dr. Tompkins, criticize what they call a revolving door between government and private industry. If I'm hearing you right you are arguing that there's a benefit to moving back and forth between government and industry. Am I understanding that right?

DR. TOMPKINS: Yes, there absolutely is, and I will caveat that by saying I'm going to focus very much on DARPA. We are technologists, and part of, I think, what most people realize is that technology moves very quickly. And also we are an organization that prides itself on being very, very risk tolerant. And I think one of the things that can be the enemy of tolerating risk is being in one place for too long.

So we bring people in, they stay for a tenure that is typically around four years, and then they go back out either to a new job or back to where they were before. That means we're always getting a refresh on ideas. It means that nobody comes in and says, "Well, that can't be done because we tried that ten years ago and it didn't work." So that part is really essential to us.

Now to address some of the questions about the revolving door, we have an incredibly effective and very strong ethics policy. We try to make sure everyone who comes here understands the underlying reasons why some of those perceived negatives of people going out and then maybe taking advantage of unethically using their government connections in the private sector would be highly inappropriate and sort of toxic to our ability to do our mission. I think all of our program managers are committed to that, but we also have access for them, you know, usually with about a ten-minute response from any of our ethics folks, to provide them direct advice on any question they may have.

So you're not left in doubt as to what the appropriate path might be when you're facing a question, say, about a post-DARPA employment opportunity or about whether or not you might want to interview with somebody while you're still at DARPA. So we have lots of help, and I think it's worked really well.

MR. IGNATIUS: One of the fun things about DARPA are the competitions that DARPA sponsors, robotics competitions, I just was reading about a new underground, I gather, robotics competition you're sponsoring, driverless vehicles. So just tell us a little bit about that part of how DARPA tries to encourage innovation and ideas out there.

DR. TOMPKINS: Oh, those are so much fun. When I first came to DARPA as a program manager, years and years ago, I came just a couple of months before the Urban Challenge, which was the third in a series of unmanned vehicle challenges. It brings this incredible global community together all into one place at one time. And so it's a little bit of the opposite of what I was just talking about, about how we're learning to be able to work more remotely and be effective. Sometimes you just sort of need everything together at once.

And, you know, DARPA starts, I'm going to say on the average of about 50 new technology programs per year. Most of those we do by, you know, putting out a solicitation and reading proposals and then, you know, funding specific teams to do work for us. But sometimes you have a problem that is just so big, and where the solution space is so broad that you need to reach out to the world. And so things like driverless cars or robotics, those are the kinds of things where you don't want to just limit it to a handful of pre-selected teams to do the work. You want to throw out a crazy hard question, and you want to put some prize money there at the end that will motivate people. Although I admit that I hear from our teams all the time on these prizes that it's not the money they're going for. It's just the opportunity to solve the problem and the chance to make that difference.

But we end up with solutions that are just much more creative than we would've gotten otherwise, and a lot of those things I think you'll see. After that third driverless car competition, most of the people who were on the winning teams were almost immediately snapped up by companies like Google, and we were able to then see the DARPA national security focus start to permeate out into the commercial world fairly quickly as well.

MR. IGNATIUS: I want to ask you to talk a little bit more about these unconventional things that DARPA does. I just was reading, before our conversation, the list in Military Times about unlikely DARPA projects, and they included plant-eating robots, houses that repair themselves, cyborg insects. I mean, this stuff is just fun to read about.

But there are a number of programs that you're working on that deal directly with issues involving the threats to our climate, the fundamental issues that the planet as a whole is concerned with, that don't fit the usual national security description. Maybe you could talk about a few of those that you think are especially interesting for folks, that they ought to know about DARPA.

DR. TOMPKINS: Well sure. There are a number of things that--well first, we tend to take a pretty hard look at everything we do. They may not fit what the world might typically think of as being sort of military. Our remit is really focused on national security, and we put a pretty hard lens on whether what we're doing is national security focused.

One example that has probably been in the news a fair amount has to do with the mRNA vaccines, which were pretty fundamental to the rapid vaccine production for the COVID-19 pandemic. That is something that DARPA made seminal investments into over a decade ago. And you can say, well, DARPA's responsibility is not public health and pandemics, and it's not, and we didn't do it for public health and pandemics so much as we did it for the fact that military warfighters have to deploy all over the world, often to places where they're facing some pretty strange diseases, for which we don't have vaccines, and the traditional process of finding and fabricating and manufacturing vaccines just didn't make any sense.

So we had a DARPA program manager who came in and said, "Here are some really crazy things that could accelerate that process much, much more, so we could actually turn vaccines around in days rather than in years, in order to protect the warfighters. And oh, by the way, there could be a side benefit, should there ever be some type of global pandemic." And we said, "Oh, that's kind of interesting, but let's get back to the warfighter part." And that led to, you know, significant investments in companies like Moderna and the acceleration of vaccines for Operation Warp Speed.

So we do a lot of things in supply chains again, so medical supply chains, in being able to make and manufacture things in the field, which ultimately can come back and feed back into what seemed like more civil economic benefits, but they are really all starting off with a military problem that we have to try to figure out how to solve. And we have the remit to be able to do as disruptive and crazy a set of ideas as we can if we think it's going to make a difference.

MR. IGNATIUS: One of the things that is a puzzle for military, for national security, but also for anybody who follows technology is quantum computing, and I'm very curious what you, from your seat atop this organization, think about how soon usable quantum computers, programmable quantum computers, will be available to do meaningful work. Is that three years off? Five years off? A year off? What's your best guess about that?

DR. TOMPKINS: That is a great question and very timely, because the answer is we don't know, but we have started a program to help us understand that better. So I think it might come as a surprise to a lot of people listening that there actually is no proof at all that outside of encryption--and encryption is a really important area--that outside the space of encryption that there will be a useful, usable quantum computer that can solve any of these other problems. There's lots and lots of potential, but nothing is actually demonstrably proven.

And so one of the things we just created is a program called Quantum Benchmarking, which is specifically challenging the community to help us come up with the metrics and the testing techniques that we would need to be able to compare and make these kinds of predictions about quantum computing.

So you're right, there's a lot of clutter in the talk about quantum computing, and one of the things that DARPA can do really well is to take a step back and say, you know, one of the real problems and why there's so much clutter is that we are not able to compare apples to apples, and we simply don't know exactly what the right metrics are. And so we're going to try to figure that out.

Ask me again in a couple of years and we might have a much better answer for you.

MR. IGNATIUS: Deal. I will, and that's useful. The idea of having a benchmark will be valuable to everybody.

So when we talk about technology competition in national security these days we talk about China, which is a near-peer competitor of a sort that the United States really has never had in modern times. I'm curious what you think, again, from your perspective running DARPA, about whether we're still in the lead in technology, vis-à-vis China, and whether you're concerned in any particular areas about the United States losing that lead.

DR. TOMPKINS: You know, technology is really complex, and so even in a specific discipline, for example, say quantum, you're going to find sub-disciplines and sort of sub-sub-disciplines, and in any one of those I believe that there are some in which China is doing much better than we are and there are others in which we are doing much better than they are, in the sense of advancement. "Better" is probably a terrible word to use. It's simply of who is moving faster and who is farther ahead.

Yes, I do think there are areas where we have lost ground. I think there are a lot of areas in which the U.S. continues to maintain the lead, and we are focusing really hard on the kinds of things that we would need to do to excite more people to thinking about sort of contributing to that mission of technological excellence and global leadership.

MR. IGNATIUS: I just want to ask you, what are the areas that you think we are losing the lead, as you mentioned?

DR. TOMPKINS: There are some aspects--you've heard people talk about things like artificial intelligence and machine learning. Again, there are certain aspects of AI and machine learning in which I think China has been able to move forward more quickly. I think that in any area, particularly where you have, you know, a heavy government focus on certain technologies that they have been able to make strides much more quickly.

It's also much more focused and in some ways easier to see. If you think about it, you know, the U.S. science and technology landscape is really distributed, and it's across hundreds of research universities, small companies, large companies, as well as government and nonprofit research. And so it's often a little bit harder to be able to pull that focus together, and some of the kinds of things that we might be working on are things that don’t always get advertised.

So I don't think there's a good way to give you a quantitative comparison except to say that, you know, there are certainly fields that we're paying close attention to.

MR. IGNATIUS: So a last question, Dr. Tompkins. Out there in the technology world there are many young software engineers who are wary of working for the U.S. government, and in particular are wary of working on defense projects. We saw that with Google resistance to Project Maven a few years ago.

What would be your simple answer, if you were to just give a 60-second response to the young engineer who says, "I think technology should be for the world, not for the Defense Department." How would you answer that?

DR. TOMPKINS: Well I would say that technology absolutely should be for the world, and I would say that most of, or many of the seminal technologies that have launched whole technological industries came originally from the U.S. government. There are areas of technological advancement that it simply doesn't make sense for industry to invest in. Sometimes they are at the seams of different industries, or sometimes they are pushing hard enough beyond where the business model might work, in order to create entirely new capabilities.

So for computer scientists, I would advise them to take a good, hard look at history and look at the origins of their discipline, and look at how many of sort of the technologies that form their entire industry came from U.S. government investments. I think it would be a shockingly large amount. You've probably seen different organizations do things where they look at devices like the iPhone or laptop computers, and start showing all of the different items that came out of not just U.S. government but primarily DoD investments. And those do translate to the benefit of the world.

So this is how you make that difference on reaching beyond just what is sort of the next couple of years' worth of technology. If you want to affect the next decade, that's something that you can do through the government.

MR. IGNATIUS: Dr. Stefanie Tompkins, director of DARPA, thank you so much for joining us for a rich conversation. We hope you'll come back and join us again on Washington Post Live.

DR. TOMPKINS: Thanks so much for having me.

MR. IGNATIUS: So as always, thank you for watching. To check out what interviews we have coming up please head to to register for those programs, find out more information.

I'm David Ignatius. Thank you for joining us today.

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