Science Wizards Work Magic at CIA
The agency's top technologist pulls back the curtain.
If Hollywood were to create a movie about CIA human intelligence gathering, it would need to be more Mission Impossible than James Bond, more about teamwork and technical expertise than individual exploits, says Dawn Meyerriecks, who leads the agency’s Directorate of Science and Technology.
“With James Bond, they issued him a whole bunch of gear and he went out and did his thing. If you’re familiar with Ethan Hunt, he’s got a technical team around him that he uses for his base of operations,” Meyerriecks explains, adding that the James Bond approach is no longer the way it works, especially in the world of human intelligence (HUMINT) gathering. “It’s much more the team of people with deep expertise around an actor or set of actors that enables in-the-moment sleight of hand to let mission happen, particularly from a human intelligence perspective.”
Enter the Directorate of Science and Technology, also known as the DS&T. The directorate is one of five major components within the agency, and its personnel have “a significant field presence,” Meyerriecks says. The organization’s website indicates its expertise is in “technology so advanced, it’s classified” and describes the mission as attacking national intelligence problems with “effective targeting, bold technology and superb tradecraft.
“We’re world-class technologists focused on the nation’s toughest intelligence challenges. We bring great technology and tradecraft to detect and execute operations, collect and report intelligence, and identify and exploit adversary weaknesses,” Meyerriecks offers.
Because the directorate’s work is highly classified, she points to open materials—books, movies and webpages—to offer peeks behind the curtain. For example, the “rather dated” book Wizards of Langley “describes the kind of things we do,” but “I can’t and won’t talk about what we have in current operations,” she states.
In addition to supporting operatives in the field, the directorate scours the marketplace for advanced technologies it can integrate into CIA operations. But what really sets DS&T apart, she says, is the ability to use technologies from a wide range of disciplines in surprising ways. “We have deep expertise in terms of technology but also in terms of intelligence tradecraft, and that makes us appear to be magical because we bring to bear a lot of different disciplines in ways that people can’t imagine … that give us a strategic and tactical edge.”
To illustrate the team’s innovation, Meyerriecks cites two more movies, Argo and Azorian: The Raising of the K-129, both of which were inspired by real-world CIA operations. Argo is a 2012 film depicting a 1979 mission in which a CIA agent posed as a Hollywood producer scouting a location for a science fiction film. The ruse was part of an operation to rescue six American diplomats from Iran.
Tony Mendez, the mastermind behind the caper, died in January and was honored by the CIA. “Argo did a fairly nice job of illustrating this kind of magical capability of putting together the storyline, the disguises, the cover. That was a great illustration of what our folks are capable of doing that tends to defy imagination.”
Project Azorian was a 1974 CIA attempt to raise the sunken Soviet Union submarine K-129, which the Soviets had lost, from the floor of the Pacific Ocean. “We teamed with Howard Hughes and actually went and picked up pieces of it. We didn’t get the whole thing, but we got pieces. At the time, you’d ask how that could possibly happen. That wasn’t possible. And we did it right under the Russians’ noses,” she notes.
Because teams are so important to CIA operations, Meyerriecks focuses on people as much as technology. This past summer she launched the Senior Technical Service effort to ensure technologists know they are appreciated and have a clear career path forward. “We laid out career pathing and things like that to emphasize for our senior technical corps that we value them and that this is really, really important. It’s not just technology development,” she reports. “If you have operations expertise, if you’re a targeting expert, if your expertise is programs and plans, all of these things are vitally important to us in order to be successful, and we want to make sure to let people know they can reach the highest levels of government staying in their technical expertise area.”
The initiative is modeled after the Senior Analytic Service launched about 20 years ago by the agency’s Directorate of Analysis. That effort provides a senior career path for experienced analysts who may not necessarily want to move into management positions. “We’re leveraging their lessons learned as we stand up our Senior Technical Service. We’re trying to do the same thing with our technologists to show that they can rise to the most senior levels of government by being, let’s say, a battery expert or whatever the particular discipline or tradecraft area is.”
She also has enlisted a team of senior agency officers to examine how well the directorate is integrated across the agency. “More and more, everything is underpinned and enabled by technology, so it’s really important for us to be early in the discussions in terms of how we go after specific intelligence challenges. We want to be certain that we are engaged in those conversations as early as possible and in the most productive way possible,” she asserts. “Anything they want to recommend is on the table. Nothing is off the table, other than the director said we’re not going to do a reorganization.”
The best open source indicators of technologies in which the CIA is interested are the webpages for In-Q-Tel and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA), she indicates. The former is a venture capital firm created specifically to equip the CIA and other intelligence and defense agencies with advanced technologies. IARPA is the intelligence community’s research and development organization. “They have investment areas that we collaborate on, and they are two of the organizations we work very closely with to get what we need from a technology perspective.”
The agency also teams with counterparts in allied countries, especially Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Collectively with the United States they are known as the Five Eyes nations because of the close relationship shared by their respective intelligence communities. In-Q-Tel recently opened international offices in London and Sydney.
Meyerriecks specifies big data, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and synthetic biology as areas of interest. “We collect a lot of data, and we can’t touch it all with human eyes. It won’t scale,” she points out. “We have a bunch of pilots going on with AI and ML with the idea that we ought to be able to leverage all of the data we’re collecting in order to inform U.S. policy or analytic judgments.”
Synthetic biology is important because of its potential use against biological weapons. “When we see things like a regime that may be using chemical weapons … one of the jobs we perform is doing some of the verification to understand what it is, whether we can fingerprint it, who manufactures it, where it came from.”
She suggests the democratization of technology is both a benefit and a challenge. “The technology itself is ambivalent. There are definitely advantages to society and also things you worry about.”
Restricting access to technology, however, is probably not the best strategy. “We invented this whole democratization of technology. It has been a powerful economic engine for the U.S. and for the globe and an amazing force for good writ large. What we have to do is keep doing what we’re doing. We have the talent, we have the innate systems engineering expertise, we have the can-do attitude,” she declares. “What we don’t need to do is start retracting in terms of openness. We can’t become the thing we’re trying to protect ourselves from.”