- The Washington Times
Thursday, March 10, 2022

The CIA is ramping up its outreach to academia to help develop new spy technology at CIA Labs, a first-of-its-kind federal lab designed to compete with successful schemes by Russia and China to enlist academics and scientists at American universities.

CIA Labs deputy director John Lewis said the project was several years in the making and came in response to a range of challenges facing the spy agency from stolen intellectual property to recruitment and retention woes.

“The biggest realization was that we were not active participants in the U.S. research ecosystem,” Mr. Lewis said. “We were kind of going back to the same usual suspects for the contracting and they really weren’t the best place. In many technology areas, if you’re not engaged with academia, you’re really missing out on the discovery aspect and the chance to move things forward.” 

The decision to join the community of more than 300 federal labs operated by the government was kickstarted in 2018. Former CIA science and technology deputy director Dawn Meyerriecks tasked a couple of officers with brainstorming a mechanism for future tech innovation and they dreamed up a plan that became CIA Labs.

The CIA had plenty of one-to-one relationships with academia that started and ended with a project. But the agency wanted something more enduring and that went beyond giving grants to professors and contracts to businesses.

Mr. Lewis, whose service as a government scientist dates to the 1980s, helped establish the lab. Since September 2020, his small team has been pursuing multidisciplinary research in areas such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology and quantum computing.

The lab has been busy at work. Mr. Lewis said CIA Labs has a few patents in the pipeline and is moving forward with a pilot program on energy technologies. He declined to identify specific partners or the number of officers working in the labs but said his team brings in officers from across his agency and throughout the intelligence community. 

“It’s not a secret that the CIA is interested in batteries. It’s what we may do later when you develop that technology and transition it into development programs, which is a different side,” Mr. Lewis said. “And that’s not where we want academia; we want academia on discovery, and developing, and moving technology forward to that transition stage.”

Production is the phase of innovation that the government is the least equipped to do well, according to Hudson Institute senior fellow Arthur Herman. 

Mr. Herman, the author of “Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II,” said the last century’s mobilization model remains a great paradigm for understanding these new efforts to balance the roles of government and businesses in critical tech research and development. 

“Entrepreneurship, innovation — government can play a key role, but then productivity it’s really tough for government to play an important role there,” Mr. Herman said. “And so what you usually see is that government has a responsibility to think to leave it to the private sector to figure out what’s the best way to produce the things that you need and that you want here.”

The U.S. government is increasingly looking toward the private sector again for assistance on research and development. It’s not just the CIA. David Spirk, the Department of Defense’s chief data officer, told reporters earlier this year that the American government must have fruitful relationships with academia and business to win its competition with China.

While Mr. Lewis was helping to build CIA Labs, the Department of Defense’s R&D arm led a pilot program designed to transfer its tech research to the private sector. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) created an initiative to give its researchers funding and connections to investors and companies. 

Last year, DARPA partnered with the CIA-contracted venture capital fund In-Q-Tel to move faster in its race against foreign investors. DARPA’s chief of commercial strategy Kacy Gerst said some of the people involved in her agency’s program initially only had offers of foreign investment before her team got involved, meaning those researchers’ first, best chance of survival came from foreign investors promising lofty sums of money.

China uses a playbook that relies on coercing its commercial sector and taking foreigners’ intellectual property. The communist government’s policies of military-civil fusion force cooperation between China-based academic and corporate institutions and the regime. 

The Chinese Communist Party also oversees hundreds of talent plans that incentivize Americans to steal technological information to advance the communist country’s goals, according to the FBI’s website. Laboratories are particular targets and the FBI said China has successfully recruited talent program participants globally for work on programs involving wind tunnel design, advanced lasers, military technologies and nuclear energy. 

CIA Director William Burns told Congress on Thursday that tech innovation will be center stage for America’s growing competition with China.

“Nothing is going to matter more to the future of CIA and I think the U.S. intelligence community more broadly than our ability to compete technologically,” Mr. Burns told the Senate Intelligence Committee. “It’s the main arena … for competition with China.”

CIA Labs has developed a new incentive structure for the agency’s officers that Mr. Lewis said he hopes will help retain employees and return a benefit to taxpayers. Officers will be able to obtain patents for the intellectual property they create at the CIA and have the opportunity to profit later from those patents instead of watching the private sector capitalize on their breakthroughs. 

Alongside competing for talent with the private sector and potential adversaries, CIA Labs faces other challenges. The CIA is looking to find its footing in a crowded space with hundreds of other federal labs and several federal agencies, which will likely lead to concerns about whether CIA Labs is duplicating others’ work and adding another layer of bureaucracy. 

Mr. Herman said such duplication isn’t necessarily bad for those trying to spark innovation. 

“Having duplication of effort, even redundancy of effort … could be not a bad thing,” Mr. Herman said. “If Lockheed Martin had had another company that was developing the equivalent of the Joint Strike Fighter using stealth technologies, maybe the cost would’ve been less, right? Maybe it would’ve rolled out a little bit sooner.”

The fresh eyes of CIA Labs may spot things others will not, including ideas and talent. Mr. Lewis said an ongoing CIA Labs project involving batteries stemmed from a paper published six or seven years ago that was relatively untouched by researchers.

CIA Labs will also play a role in the agency’s recruitment process, he said, noting that it hires scientists and engineers across every discipline imaginable. 

• Ryan Lovelace can be reached at rlovelace@washingtontimes.com.

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