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Defense HUMINT Needs Technology, Too

October 2006
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

U.S. warfighters are finding that human intelligence, or HUMINT, is more important than ever in the war on terrorism. The Defense HUMINT Management Office (DHMO) is working to produce new technologies to aid the warfighter in the quest for effective HUMINT collection and dissemination.
Trench coats have given way to optical collectors.

Intelligence technology research normally focused on electronics-related disciplines increasingly is being applied to improving human intelligence capabilities. These capabilities, which range from intelligence collection to distribution, define human intelligence activities in the war on terrorism.

Human intelligence, or HUMINT, is increasing in importance as allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan deal with terror networks moving about the general populace. Preventing attacks on innocent civilians in Southwest Asia as well as the West may depend on being able to gather information using HUMINT assets and techniques.

The U.S. Defense Department has organized its Defense HUMINT Management Office (DHMO) to support HUMINT operators in the field. Much of this support includes tapping conventional and nontraditional sources for technologies that aid HUMINT collection, processing and dissemination.

Drew Bewick is the chief of technology tradecraft at the DHMO. Bewick’s office represents the HUMINT elements in the military services, the combatant commands and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). He is tasked with finding new HUMINT technologies and capabilities and speeding them to the field in the war on terrorism.

“To win this war on terrorism and to find people, HUMINT is first among equals,” Bewick declares.

The DHMO has four organizational pillars: plans and policies; operations and assessments; training, including training standards and career paths; and technology tradecraft. For its activities, the office has two focus areas. One is to develop key technologies that enable the department to penetrate difficult targets. The other is to integrate HUMINT data into the joint and coalition intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) picture. This requires correlating HUMINT data with that of signals intelligence (SIGINT), geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) and measurement and signatures intelligence (MASINT), for example. How the HUMINT data helps the commander in the field is a key criterion for generating the right knowledge, Bewick allows.

The DHMO is aiming to improve collection, processing and dissemination equally as it strives to apply technologies for better HUMINT. For example, Bewick relates that as DHMO personnel visit the commands in the field, they often find that HUMINT technology tool sets are nothing more than stubby pencils and paper. Even improving how HUMINT data is reported will have a major effect. “You didn’t see James Bond writing too many reports,” he analogizes. “Yet, HUMINTers in the Defense Department spend an awful lot of time writing reports.” Providing new capabilities to help them report data is vital to the success of HUMINT, he declares.

“If it were possible to develop only capabilities for HUMINT collectors in the field, that would be awesome—that would help them do their job of penetrating difficult targets,” he continues. “But equally, to help them share that data with whomever needs it is just as important.”

HUMINT comprises a broad spectrum of activities and data. The result is a story that often is in the form of textual information, Bewick offers. That may change as intelligence takes new forms. The office has established a limited partnership with In-Q-Tel (SIGNAL Magazine, April 2001) that Bewick describes as “terrific.” Through In-Q-Tel, the DHMO invested in the video game company Destineer, based in Plymouth, Minnesota. The DHMO is seeking modeling and simulation for teaching tactics, techniques and procedures, especially for integrating HUMINT data. Finding people involves social network analysis, but when HUMINT data is correlated with other data, the information that results is no longer textual.

The DHMO’s team works with In-Q-Tel and with partners in other corporations and government agencies to find the talent that can offer solutions to its technology needs. Many entrepreneurs have good ideas that the DHMO wants to leverage.

“What we really do is save the lives of good ideas,” he declares.

Bewick continues that his office wanted to adapt the In-Q-Tel approach to its own operating environment. So it added a venture capital model that focuses on understanding the warfighter. The DHMO formed working groups of a user board, and these groups are queried when the office encounters a potential solution. These users may offer a way of altering the innovative technology to make it more effective.

The DHMO’s efforts already have borne fruit. One technology that has been accelerated is the mobile immersive video-ground, or MID-G. It comprises a 360-degree full-motion video capability that can collect visual information from all directions simultaneously. Bewick offers that it helps with mission planning for attacking terrorist objectives. “There are places that we are asked to go to that are dangerous; we only want to go once and get as much information as we can. It is incredibly valuable, when operationalizing our human capabilities, to get an understanding of what it feels and looks like on the ground from the human perspective.

“You couldn’t do this before.” 

The DHMO currently is testing MID-G and transferring it to the field. Bewick notes that the office has driven its commercial cost down by a factor of 10 in only eight months. He adds that for every dollar invested by the office through In-Q-Tel, anywhere from $8 to $11 are matched by the venture capital community. That sustainment by the commercial marketplace is vastly different from the traditional government contracting model, he points out.

Among the vital HUMINT technologies that the DHMO is speeding to the field are handheld Arabic-to-English translation devices.
Another key technology comes from Palantir Technologies Incorporated, Palo Alto, California. The founders of this company are the original developers of PayPal, the online payment system acquired by eBay. Having developed algorithms to detect fraud, they have been asked by the DHMO to develop a means to discover information about a social network—largely to help find people.

This touches upon the vitally important task of understanding network threats. It encompasses how people are connected and through what kind of structures, as well as how a group stays cohesive.

On a more esoteric level, some technology basic research can lead to improvements in HUMINT collection capabilities. One important area is microfluidic lenses. Imagery collection, from ubiquitous picture cell phones to specialized advanced sensing systems, largely uses mechanical lenses. A small microfluidic lens can change its shape to be telescopic and zoom in on a distant object. The DHMO has found several companies working on this technology, which may first emerge commercially in picture cell phones.

But an emerging technology need not have an immediate battlefield impact to serve the defense HUMINT community. “Our measure of success is not that everything we make an investment in has a high mission impact,” Bewick offers. “If it were, my concern would be that we were not setting ourselves up for the next conflict.

“So the metric I have is that 50 percent of our portfolio should be high mission impact, and 50 percent of our portfolio should involve taking some risks. Our CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command] executors don’t want to hear what we’ll be giving them two years from now; they want to know what we have that will help them now. But the hypothesis is that while we have to do that, we also have to get ready for the next kinds of challenges that we will have to face,” he concludes.

Among the risky technologies is identity management. Bewick cites the need for a mobile DNA fingerprinting capability to ensure proper identification of terrorists among innocents. This can make the difference between detaining a terrorist and inadvertently freeing one.

Not all technologies involve laboratory technologies. Bewick observes that operators using HUMINT databases can benefit from knowledge discovery search engines that turn up vital information. The DHMO has worked with Endeca Technologies Incorporated, Cambridge, Massachusetts—which is an In-Q-Tel company that has a guided navigation capability used by and—to develop a search capability for finding information already collected. It already has been adopted by the DIA, he notes. “You see knowledge immediately,” he explains. “This has been remarkably powerful, and we are moving it out to the field.”

The DHMO’s technology tradecraft office also has an objective to operationalize HUMINT. This will require synchronizing HUMINT activities, which is a capability that is lacking today. A synchronization matrix capability must be developed to correlate with other intelligence so that a commander in the field can see the time frame for earliest value and least value for intelligence. This has been attained for other intelligence disciplines, but it has not been achieved for HUMINT. The DHMO is accelerating its development, and Bewick is hopeful that this will produce some capability next year.

With the DHMO’s focus on operators in the field, the near-term technology that is most prominent on the office’s radar is communications. Bewick notes a sense of urgency for near person-to-person links or over-the-horizon connectivity. Interoperability is a must, which affects whether other government communications technologies can be transferred to defense HUMINT.

For the longer term, nanotechnology looms large in potential HUMINT applications. The mobile DNA fingerprinting capability, for example, could be optimized by nanotechnologies. Other biometric technologies as well as communications could benefit. The DHMO also is investing in alternative power sources, Bewick relates.

The other focus area, data integration, is no less important than technology-driven collection. “Our challenge is to convert data into knowledge rapidly,” Bewick says. “Given what we’re asked to do, we must integrate human intelligence data like we never did before.” This requires joint and coalition ISR interoperability. HUMINT now is being integrated into the Global Information Grid (GIG). So, the DHMO is emphasizing the need to plan for HUMINT data in building the GIG. As Joint Intelligence Operations Centers are emerging at the theater level (SIGNAL Magazine, October 2005, page 44), the office must integrate human data at that level. This supplements existing data integration efforts at joint task force level and below.

“Our mission is from tactical to national,” Bewick says. “We take a departmental level view, not only of the research and development effort but also of the interoperability picture for the department.”

This effort also sends the office to other government agencies to determine how they would use HUMINT data. Bewick cites the Joint Improvised Explosive Device (IED) Defeat Organization, which is designed to overcome IEDs. The DHMO is determining whether it can contribute its own science and technology or add its data to be integrated with other intelligence data.

“What we find ourselves doing is building bridges,” he says. “We are trying to bridge this valley of death where we are finding [that] technologies are dying on the vine.” Many organizations develop technologies and capabilities in their science and technology elements that reach a certain stage but progress no further. The DHMO has “boots on the ground” and communities reaching out to these other organizations.

The office has established a JointDefensewideHUMINTInnovationCenter structure that is based on finding technologies and capabilities developed among businesses or other government organizations. This portfolio management approach is based on “the serendipity of finding what has been developed elsewhere for the end user who says, ‘I need it, I’ll do an operational test of it, I’ll even commit to putting it in my POM [program objective memorandum] if you can get it to me right now.’ That’s kind of the value add that we have,” Bewick states.


The DHMO is embedding support personnel at select commands and agencies—such as those that are adept at tagging, communications or data management— who can transfer solutions to the field. Combined with user groups, these experts can help speed new technologies to the operator.

Bewick relates that recently the I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) in Iraq sent the DHMO an urgent-need statement for language translation capabilities. Within 24 hours, the office and its partners tapped existing expertise to provide the MEF with a solution that came with operational instruction on how to use the capability. The user never knew that this capability existed and was obtainable off the shelf until the DHMO provided it.

The DHMO established a Defense Department tradecraft technology board in March 2005, and it included representatives from the combatant commands, the DIA and the military services. The office asked this board to define the most critical challenges facing HUMINT operatives in the field. While this query was framed in a technology perspective, it emerged in a capability perspective.

The DHMO compared those responses, and when a similar—hence a joint—problem was apparent, the office made it a DHMO problem set. A total of nine problem sets were established, including biometrics, tagging, communications, language translation, data management, remote sensing and novel power sources.

For integrating HUMINT data and sharing information, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence asked the office to establish a HUMINT integrated product team (IPT) under the Distributed Common Ground Surface System, which is the collection system for intelligence at joint task force and below. Bewick chairs this HUMINT IPT, which also includes representatives from the services and the commands.

Among the points that emerged from these two efforts was that the DHMO would take a portfolio management approach to these targeted areas. So, the DHMO established two paths. In one would go capabilities that the department already does well but can do better. The other would comprise capabilities that are not done or are not done well today but that must be available in the next few years. Among these are biometrics and person location through a social network, Bewick offers. The office is issuing its first Defense Department HUMINT metadata standards, which are emerging in part from work performed with SAIC at the JointDefensewideHUMINTInnovationCenter. People who need to find HUMINT will be able to generate a user-defined operating picture. “Our measure for interoperability will be to make HUMINT data accessible, visible, available to whomever has a need for it wherever they are [and] whenever they need it,” Bewick declares.

The DHMO also established its own metric for determining whether an innovation is worthy of investment. This metric entails assessing the return on intelligence based on a predictive mission impact measure. Bewick explains that the DHMO frames it in terms of values and risk tradeoff.

The values it keys on are military advantage; end-user urgency or enthusiasm, especially where users have requested this type of innovation or have existing related programs of record; jointness, particularly whether there is more than one user among the services and the commands; and strategic policy alignment.

For risk assessment, the office considers operational risk. If someone uses a capability, might it fail and result in friendly fatalities? The office seeks to determine the effects if it does not work as well as its defined uncertainty. Another risk involves the defense infrastructure—will it require considerable changing? A solution must be compatible—and interoperable—with the existing infrastructure.

And, technological functional risk is an issue. A technology solution may require new unproven innovations. While this and the other issues weigh heavily in the decision, alone they do not necessarily determine the adoption of a solution, Bewick notes.


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