Culture, and Cooperation in Scientific and Technical Intelligence
Lily E. Johnston
The following article was adapted from a
paper that was a finalist in the 2007 DNI Galileo Competition, a program that
awards authors of papers proposing innovative solutions to Intelligence
The findings of recent studies of Intelligence
Community treatment of S&T and weapons issues suggest that the community is
ill-prepared to meet its mission of mitigating technological surprise. Author
Lily Johnston of the CIA argues that the IC must better understand the
challenges posed by today’s global scientific and technological environment and
adjust to meet them. Until the IC rewards fluency in the language of this
dynamic field and culture, it will not learn about or understand new foreign
S&T developments in their social, political, or military contexts.
Johnston proposes paths for improvement,
including the fostering of greater S&T expertise, better understanding of
the consequences of dual-use technologies, creating proficient S&T
collectors, effectively leveraging combined S&T expertise in teams, and
seamlessly integrating analysts, collectors, and subject matter experts.
Note to readers: Citations for quoted
text can be found in the PDF version of this article available on this site.
Community [is] particularly vulnerable to surprise by ‘rapidly changing and
readily available emerging technologies whose use…may result in serious and
unexpected threats.’ … One senior administration official…described the IC’s
capability to conduct this kind of all-source S&T and weapons analysis as
‘pretty poor’ and ‘mediocre at best’.”
comments such as the one above, taken from the report of the WMD Commission of
2005, are the rule, not the exception, in discussions regarding the health of
S&T intelligence—i.e. the ability of this community to collect and analyze
foreign intelligence and to produce the products that generate policy options.
The commission’s report and the work of other Intelligence Community study
boards spurred reform efforts across the community, and S&T intelligence
processes seem to be improving as a result. However, two things must happen if
we are to do more than optimize a system that is fundamentally flawed.
must understand that the world of science and technology has a culture and a
language of its own, and we must expand the number of people capable of living
and communicating in that culture. In effect, we must put “S&T” alongside
Mandarin, Pashto, and Farsi in importance as we recruit and develop people to
work in traditional hard-target fields.
must redefine cooperation at three levels— between analysts and collectors,
among IC components, and between IC components and academia and industry. This
will require creation of a new system in which S&T language and culture
experts retain their skills and credentials in order to gather and make sense
of foreign scientific and technical intelligence.
solution I propose—creation of integrated teams of multi-disciplinary S&T
officers, doing both collection and analysis—is a hard approach to a hard
problem. My recommendations invoke the spirit of the recommendations of the WMD
Commission and IC study boards and build on them in the hope of addressing
potential pitfalls and several concerns.
recommendations are also made in the recognition that no single solution exists
to meet the challenge of improving work in scientific and technological
intelligence. Efforts on a broad front are needed, and, to the credit of the
S&T intelligence community, many tangible and practical matters are being
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World Isn’t Round, the War Isn’t Cold: the Changing Nature of S&T
We are confronting
adversaries who are achieving exponential improvements in their operations
through widely available, cutting-edge technology in which their R&D costs
are any CEO’s dream: zero.…We
do face a daunting set of challenges in today’s world, and they are different
challenges from those of the last century—not only because our adversaries are
different in kind and character, but also because their weapons and technical
resources are different in kind and character.
and technology has and will continue to revolutionize the world we live in—how
we do business, how we communicate, even how we conceive of our personal
identities. Developments happen so fast that new electronics are a generation
old almost immediately after they are purchased, and basic research begins
growing stale only a year or two after it is published.
than ever, new technologies have the potential to be adapted and adopted by our
adversaries in undesirable ways. The IC cannot afford to wait until basic
research matures into weapons systems or measurable threats before focusing its
attention on them. Emerging technologies form a critical part of the IC’s
S&T intelligence portfolio, but as more emphasis is placed on basic
R&D, we are learning that it poses an entirely different set of challenges
for analysts and collectors than we are used to.
and foremost, S&T intelligence is becoming increasingly complicated as more
and more commercial technologies with potentially disruptive or unintended
applications come to market. The so-called dual-use problem means we cannot
simply identify R&D programs, but must also assess their intent. Cellular
phones, for example, are nearly ubiquitous in daily life, but it is when the
owner intends to use one as part of a detonator for an explosive device that it
assessments without indications of intent are nearly meaningless in the world
of dual-use technology. However, determining intent is by far the harder
problem, one that relies more heavily on human and signals intelligence than on
any other INT. Therefore, it is more important than ever that the S&T intelligence
community come together to find solutions to our shortfalls in this area.
- A representation of interconnected scientific paradigms (convergence) created by Kevin Boyack and collaborators for an article“Mapping Science” on http://sandia.gov/news/features (accessed 27 May 2008). The graphic portrays 800,000 scientific papers, showing relationships between them and scientific disciplines. The strings emanating from the 776 red clusters of papers are words common to each scientific paradigm reflected in that cluster’s papers. See Sandia.gov for a more detailed explanation.
though we are dying of thirst for HUMINT and SIGINT on intent, we are
simultaneously drowning in vast, ever-increasing amounts of open source S&T
information. Three principal characteristics can describe the change in the
global practice of science and technology: expansion, acceleration,
and convergence. Expansion and acceleration are the most intuitive:
there is more information available (expansion), and it is accumulating faster
and faster (acceleration). Convergence describes two or more disciplines coming
together to solve problems at the junctions between them, sometimes resulting
in new, discrete fields of study.
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and technology, more so than other domains of interest to the IC, faces an
exponential increase in the amount of baseline information openly
available. Like all analysts, S&T
analysts monitor new developments—players moving pieces on a game board. Less
common to other analytic disciplines is that the rules of the game change
almost as quickly as players move their pieces. A political, economic, or
military analyst trained 10 years ago will have had to keep up with changes in
policy, for example, but will not necessarily face having to learn an entirely
novel system of governance over those 10 years. Science and technology
analysts, however, will, over a decade, certainly face new areas of study, new
technologies, and new fundamentals of how the world works.
of the metric— number of journals, terminal degrees in science and engineering,
conferences, or patents—the numbers all say the same thing: the continued
growth of S&T activity around the world is undeniable. Yet as the S&T literature expands and is
generated increasingly quickly, there are precious few indications within the
IC that we have acknowledged the challenge, much less adjusted to address it.
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with leading US scientific experts conducted as part of a National Science
Foundation study revealed that “many researchers believe that the most
promising research problems now require multiple techniques and perspectives
that are beyond the capacity of individual laboratories.” Additionally, that: “[R]esearch has become
more collaborative in practically all respects. Scientific articles more
frequently involve authors from more laboratories, more institutions, and
institutions in more countries. Collaborators are more often trained in
different disciplines. …Collaborations with researchers in other institutional
sectors, especially industry, were becoming more common.” As the data, research areas, industries, and
centers of excellence multiply and converge, the S&T intelligence community
will have to learn to converge with them or risk missing the most innovative
developments in science and engineering.
in basic research (depicted in the accompanying image) is occurring faster than
academic training programs can keep up. Therefore, S&T intelligence
officers will need to cover topics and areas that will stretch the limits of
their training. One (partial) solution to this problem would be to assemble
teams of officers with enough overlap in expertise to allow them to help each
other provide broader coverage, but not so much overlap that they are
redundant. Deliberate assembly of teams is important—it is unlikely to occur by
happy accident—to foster environments in which officers come together and
create more than the sum of their number in their research and their products.
point is to suggest that S&T intelligence is different— not harder—than any
other discipline. But S&T intelligence becomes harder when those who
practice it must, for lack of alternatives, use tradecraft appropriate for
other disciplines. Fundamentally different disciplines outside of the IC
require fundamentally different ways of evaluating them within the IC.
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Note on Expert Partnerships
[it] is a successful interaction mechanism with academia and the private
sector, it is insufficient compared to what is required. The Intelligence
Community needs more consistent advice than that provided by unpaid
professionals and more contemporary advice than that provided by intelligence
scientists who have not published research in over a decade.
the biggest question this paper must answer is “Why aren’t current proposals to
improve partnerships with subject matter experts good enough?” To be fair, we
have not yet given stronger doses of the current methods much chance to work.
However, no current proposal addresses the problem of trying to be two places
an intelligence officer is often a more-than-full-time job, and cutting-edge
S&T is no different. We can ask scientists to try and bridge the gap, but
until there is an incentive structure that can adequately compensate them for
being only part-time scientists, we will never get the level of effort that is
required. Few scientists would risk their careers out of the goodness of their
hearts to help the IC, regardless of their belief in our mission. We can ask
intelligence officers to do the same, but as I will discuss below, our officers
will never truly be accepted (back) in the S&T world and be granted the
access they need without a drastic change in the nature of their jobs and in
the institutional support they receive.
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Establishes incentives for the IC to more quickly attract and hire highly
qualified Americans to include first-generation Americans whose native language
skills and cultural experiences are indispensable to facing current and future
national security challenges.
formula on the opening page of this article is an intentionally obtuse equation
to make a point. It is known to biochemists as Hill’s equation for cooperative
binding. The reference might be considered obscure, even by those with
backgrounds in the life sciences, but it highlights three points:
a type of cooperation that I will revisit in the conclusion;
and engineers use languages unique to their fields;
It is a
reminder (particularly for those of us who at one time used the Hill equation)
that, like all languages, what once was at your fingertips is easily lost,
replaced by other knowledge that is tapped more often. The colloquial
expression holds: use it or lose it.
and concepts are the building blocks of the language S&T experts use to
communicate with one another. Like a foreign language, it is certainly possible
to look up the vocabulary in a book, but nobody will mistake you for an expert
if you must use a travel dictionary to translate a lunch order. Moreover, words
routinely get added to, subtracted from, and changed in the S&T dictionary.
Imagine a 19th century Parisian transported to today’s Quebec City—she could
make herself understood and would eventually pick up the local dialect and
slang, but she would be far from being a native Quebecoise.
situation is roughly analogous to the one facing the S&T officer who has
been sequestered in the IC for 15 years; who has followed a topic in an area
outside his primary area of expertise (expertise that would be dated in any
case); and who communicates findings primarily to non-scientific audiences. In
this circumstance, trying to stay fluent in S&T is like trying to stay
fluent in French by skimming Parisian papers twice a week and participating in
a weekly language club. It can be done, but it is exceedingly difficult. Myriad
incentives exist to develop and maintain foreign language expertise in the IC,
but there are no serious, concerted efforts to recruit, maintain, and enhance
S&T language capability.
if we add in the challenge of convergence, our metaphorical French-speaker
would now be burdened by having to learn the words in Russian, Portuguese,
German, and Italian that have suddenly become essential to understanding new
developments. It would be unreasonable to expect all officers involved in
S&T intelligence to be “fluent,” but a cadre of analysts and collectors
must be if the IC is to keep up.
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analysis often fails to place foreign S&T…in the context of an adversary’s
plans, strategy, policies, and overall capabilities.
to think creatively about how to develop an analytic cadre with deep
understanding of cultures very different from our own will seriously undermine
the Community’s ability to respond to the new and different intelligence
challenges of the 21st century.
bona fides are part and parcel of human interactions, especially in
intelligence work. Not everyone can be trusted, but an exchange of information
between two parties helps establish a measure of mutual credibility and trust.
Likewise, the absence of certain facts or behaviors can betray someone as an
outsider instantly. The science and engineering communities are no different:
their members can easily distinguish insiders from imposters.
is one mechanism for identifying those who belong, but suppose an IC officer
can overcome that obstacle. Far and away, the most common yardsticks for
judging S&T prowess are the “Big P’s”: pedigree, publications, and patents.
You are an insider if have: learned from well-respected names in the field;
published peer-reviewed original research; or have filed patents in the past
year. In some S&T areas, historical relationships with intelligence and
defense communities makes interaction easier, particularly if information can
be shared at the classified level.
emerging S&T, where very few scientists have experience with the IC, much
less clearances, the experience is different. There, wariness and hesitation to
talk to intelligence officers—especially if those officers appear to be
unconnected to the R&D community—colors all interactions and generally
stymies intelligence gathering.
insider-level credibility, officers do not have the access required to know
what is happening in emerging S&T in real time—before it appears in
peer-reviewed venues, often years after the articles were first researched and
written. They instead must rely on open-source literature and research. Imagine
trying to do economic analysis for tomorrow’s policy decisions with years-old
data. That kind of a lag in reporting would be intolerable in any other
intelligence area of interest; yet it is the rule in S&T intelligence.
challenge of gaining insider access is not a new one. Indeed, tacit
acknowledgment of it probably explains our systematic reliance on academic and
industrial subject matter experts (SME) to report back to the IC. The glaring
flaw in this strategy is that the vast majority of our SMEs have little inkling
of how the IC works or what would be important to analysts.
gets worse when, as is typical, our SMEs are reporting to HUMINT collectors who
do not have strong backgrounds in S&T and are not equipped to judge what
information is of value. Our generalist collectors work hard, but through no
fault of their own, they often do not understand the subtleties of the S&T
community. We have placed an incredibly unfair burden on collectors, asking
them, in effect, to operate in a foreign language and in an environment into
which they cannot blend.
flaw in the current system is that because we tend most often to interact with
US scientists, it is heavily biased by the US scientific culture. Even when
such SMEs report observations from overseas, they are like Parisians observing
Quebec: their recollections are either without context, or more insidiously,
unconsciously interpreted through the lens of US S&T practices.
US-based SMEs are intimately familiar with the funding, tenure, intellectual
property, defense S&T, and collaborative climates outside of the United
States. Acquisition of this type of knowledge abroad takes time and experience
abroad. Managers of other intelligence specialties understand the critical
importance of extended time in target countries. So why should S&T
intelligence be any different?
we must address the S&T intelligence culture within the Intelligence
Community. Interagency cooperation on S&T issues is probably as strong
today as it has ever been, but only through the enormous, largely volunteer,
effort of a few individuals. Even with such positive cooperation, however,
there still exists a pervasive “agency first, IC second” mentality.
question, agencies have differing priorities for S&T intelligence, but it
is time to use these differing perspectives as assets rather than excuses to
solidify stovepipes. Additionally, IC components often neglect their “blue” or
US-based counterparts in the Department of Energy’s national laboratories and
the Defense Department research labs. Program managers and researchers in these
environments often have excellent insights on state-of-the-art R&D and have
significantly more freedom to move in the academic and industrial S&T
only do different perspectives strengthen our analyses, but they also maximize
the use of resources by avoiding duplication of efforts and the multiplication
of requirements. A shared community-based collection program might go a long
way toward supporting the spirit of cooperation that is slowly growing within
the S&T intelligence community.
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[The IC] should develop
and manage a range of new overt and covert human intelligence capabilities. In
particular, a “Human Intelligence Innovation Center”…should be established to
facilitate the development of new and innovative mechanisms for collecting
We found inadequate [IC]
collaboration and cooperation, analysts who do not understand
collection,…inadequate systematic use of outside experts…[and] a shortage of
analysts with scientific and technical expertise.
ignorance of collection processes and principles can lead to serious
misjudgments, and we recommend that the [IC] strengthen analyst training in
is a fundamental disconnect between analysts and collectors, and it is
particularly pronounced in S&T intelligence. Generally, neither analysts
nor collectors have the (S&T) language or cultural credentials to gather
and process the information required to adequately cover today’s S&T
landscape. Increasing, and to some degree formalizing, the interactions between
analysts and outside experts alleviates this burden somewhat, but ultimately
what we need are inside experts. Additionally, it is not clear that the
increased contact with outside experts has affected the collection process
measurably (that is, led to more debriefings, more intelligence reports,
improved access, etc.).
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Why Expert Outreach Only
Takes Us So Far
reform efforts currently underway in the S&T intelligence community are
absolutely necessary—they just may not be sufficient to meet the challenges. What
more might we try? What follows is a “thought experiment” that presumes an
ideal world in which budgetary and bureaucratic impediments are minor. It is
offered in the hope that it provides a pathway to real change, but written with
the full knowledge that it contains major impracticalities and other
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practice, it may ultimately be more feasible to tackle the problem S&T
intelligence faces in smaller pieces. Any proposed solution must contribute to
the creation of the following conditions:
officers become “inside experts,” largely by being given better mechanisms to
maintain their language and cultural credentials throughout their career—and
are rewarded for doing so;
importance of intent in dual-use S&T assessments, and therefore the
importance of all sources—not just open sources—is understood, and programs are
have proficiency in S&T language and are able to move freely in foreign
scientific communities, academic and industrial;
S&T officers are assembled to ensure that their combined expertise can
cover cutting-edge S&T that may not fit squarely under any single officer’s
analysts gain deep understanding of the collection process, and S&T
collectors gain deep understanding of analysis;
mechanisms are created to encourage, if not require, S&T intelligence
officers to work across agency barriers in order to maximize resources and the
number of perspectives on a given issue.
will be lots of ways to address some or all of these pieces, but might there be
a single model that accommodates them all to some degree? Perhaps it would look
something like the following.
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Concept: The Science and Technology Analytic Collection Cell
concept is inspired by at least two small pilot efforts (not specific to
S&T) already underway in the Intelligence Community. Teams of six to ten
officers from IC agencies (or the office of the DNI) would form what could be
called S&T Analytic Collection Cells (STACCs). Recruited early in their
science or engineering careers, these officers would be trained as hybrids,
part analyst, part collector, with officers later choosing to emphasize one
track or the other.
extensive IC training, STACC officers would return to the outside S&T
community, rotating back into their careers, but as intelligence professionals
as well as subject matter experts. Eventually, the STACC teams would be
assembled, and each officer’s outside S&T career would migrate overseas in
conjunction with those of their teammates. With day jobs in the local S&T
community, these officers would be in exceptional positions to unobtrusively observe
what is happening in foreign S&T at very granular levels. But the officers
would also be able to put developments into the context of the regional S&T
environments in which they are working.
teams could also include venture capital investors, science writers,
intellectual property lawyers, and others who would add different and important
perspectives to our understanding of S&T systems worldwide. Teams would
meet regularly in secure venues to engage their colleagues with other
expertise, share observations, brainstorm new intelligence questions, submit
reports, and support analysts producing finished intelligence.
to the enormous resources and energy that would be required to run and manage
these teams, relatively few of them could operate at any given time. They would
certainly not be designed to replace any part of the current analysis or
collection process. They would only augment it. Such an undertaking would
demand an incredible amount from the officers participating, as well as of the
support structure to orchestrate it. Nevertheless, we need significant
innovation to change how we do business in S&T intelligence, and whether it
happens piecemeal or more holistically, as in the STACC model, that innovation
will never come without a price.
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IC faces a daunting task in trying to reform S&T intelligence—our old
methods are no longer enough to monitor the global S&T environment for
disruptive applications. These are untested waters, and whatever course we
choose will be risky and difficult. But this cannot be an excuse for not
trying. Historically the IC loves nothing more than a hard problem, and likes
nothing less than surprise with disastrous consequences. There is no guarantee
that if we attempt to tackle the hard problem that we won’t be surprised, but
leaving S&T intelligence as it stands certainly invites disaster.
cooperativity in enzyme binding, as described by Hill’s equation, means that an
initial binding event makes more likely subsequent events at other sites.
Enzyme binding is an awkward analogy for the practice of S&T intelligence,
but it does remind us that some things in nature were optimized for groups, not
pieces acting in isolation. We cannot adequately examine S&T issues as
individual analysts and collectors any longer, and we cannot solve the S&T
intelligence problem as individual agencies.
must build on the momentum generated by the IC study board and reports of the
WMD Commission and find innovative solutions to the problems they pose. Their
recommendations are a starting point, but they are evolutionary; alone, they
will not fundamentally change the system. It is up to the S&T intelligence
community, working from the top and the bottom, to spur the revolutionary
changes that we need to keep up with a revolutionary era in science and
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