CIA's 'Q' Talks Technology Trends Among Spies
Private labs play bigger role as spy agency marks 50th year on Thursday.
Ruth David has her dream job. She is the CIA's equivalent to "Q" in the James Bond adventures - the techie who conceals Stinger missiles behind the headlights in Bond's BMW or designs a pen that can morph into a Class 4 grenade.
"I actually used to watch all the James Bond movies and think what a fun job that would be," she says. "It has to be every techie's ideal job."
The demure Dr. David is the CIA's deputy director for science and technology. She is in charge of developing everything from sophisticated eavesdropping satellites to the fancy gadgets and disguises that "Q" offers 007 at the onset of a new assignment.
Her directorate - one of four within the CIA - has become the largest. Its high-tech wizardry allows the US to peer from space into other countries or intercept their radio and telephone communications. It also uses most of the intelligence community's estimated $28 billion annual budget.
On the eve of the spy agency's 50th anniversary, David talked with the Monitor about the changes and challenges in the agency's uses of technology. Of course, she has to protect "sources and methods" and declines to say much about the latest gizmos.
And the CIA's "Q" doesn't fit the Ian Flemming portrait. Youthful and quick-to-laugh, she looks more like a trenchcoat's femme fatale in her brown silk suit than a lab coat techie. The Kansas native holds undergraduate and two advanced degrees in electrical engineering. And she's served in several high-level positions - mainly in advanced information systems - at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M.
David is parlaying that experience into meeting one of the biggest challenges she sees at the CIA - the speed at which technology is developing and the way that is driving change within the agency - especially in terms of creating partnerships with private business. Post-cold-war budget constraints and a shift from government-driven technological advances to industry-led are forcing the agency to develop new strategies. The key word for her these days is "leverage."
"When we started in the intelligence business, the government was very much in the forefront of driving state of the art," she says. "Industry is very much in the forefront [today]."
That means the agency needs a constant technology infusion, and it requires "us to have our tentacles in the commercial marketplace everywhere," David says.
She says that in the early days at the agency, they could build a capability, and it would be used for a decade or two. Today, she says, "we're lucky if we get a year or two."
She cites the agency's first real technological breakthrough - the U-2 spy plane - as one example. Originally developed to fly over the Soviet Union to spy on its military prowess, the U-2 - publicly humiliated when the Soviets shot down and captured pilot Frances Gary Powers in 1960 and heralded when it detected the Soviet build-up of missiles in Cuba in 1962 - was used for 20 years to take photographs from 80,000 feet.
Spy planes have largely been replaced by satellites, which can instantly transmit digital imagery into the cockpits of warplanes and war rooms anywhere. From 150 miles up, they reportedly can see details as minute as different musical instruments carried by a parading Chinese military band.
In addition to satellite technology, David's department deals with the whole area of information technology, which she says touches every phase of their business - from designing methods of collection, to processing, analysis, and to dissemination of their reports to their clients - mainly the president and Congress.
A huge challenge to the agency, she says, is dealing with the exploding information environment out there. This is an area where she's found that they can successfully leverage capabilities from the private sector.
For example, the agency has collected information from open media sources for its full 50 years. The steadily increasing challenge they face is the glut of information available - especially on the Internet, where a key word search might elicit 500,000 responses.
The agency has found that it can take advantage of commercial news services available on the Internet that create specific profiles with key word searches and distinctive context. The agency takes those capabilities and builds on them - devising new search methods for character-based foreign languages, like Asian and Arabic, for example.
"We are increasingly focused on using collaborative technologies, " David says. "Our philosophy is if we can buy it, we buy it."
David says they also leverage available technology on the operations side - creating gadgets for agents in the field - when they can. But this is an area she can't discuss in detail, particularly because "there is probably still some part of the world in which a gadget is still useful."
Ditto for disguises. "We actually don't retire disguises," she says. "One of the challenges we face is that the state of technology is so variable in different parts of the world that we retire very few capabilities. I think we can be very naive in assuming that the rest of the world looks like the US in terms of technical ability. Trust me, it doesn't!"
But she will - with some hearty laughs - compare what they do to the movies. "We actually share technology," she says. "There are techniques used in the movies that are very relevant."
While David won't directly confirm it, former agents say the CIA does use rubber masks like the one worn by actor Tom Cruise to make him look like his boss, Christopher Walken in the recent spy movie, "Mission Impossible."
Last month, CIA agents managed to sneak a North Korean defector out of Egypt. "The government flew him out of Cairo under an assumed name with false documents," says a former CIA case officer. "They obviously had to disguise him somehow."