IARPA dedicates a permanent home on the campus of U Maryland

Published 29 April 2009

The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) prepares to open a University of Maryland research site to develop tools, methods to combat future threats

There is DARPA, there HSARPA, and then there is IARPA (for Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity). The other day Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Adm. Dennis Blair dedicated the new building of IARPA at M-Square, the University of Maryland’s Research Park, where other national security tenants are clustered. The 125,000-square-foot facility will be completed in late 2009. Baltimore Sun’s David Wood writes that the projects to be launched at a top-secret University of Maryland research center would make “Q” — James Bond’s owlish gadget-meister — blink with tears of envy.

In the coming months, teams of the U.S. top theoretical mathematicians, behavioral scientists, software engineers, and futurists will assemble to figure out how to make U.S. intelligence better, faster and more efficient. We are talking about going beyond — way beyond — Aston Martins with twin machine guns and ejector seats, flamethrower bagpipes, jet packs, or missile-firing leg cast. The idea of IARPA, under construction at the university’s M-Square research park near the main campus, is to investigate new ideas for intelligence agencies which are too preposterous for government bureaucrats or private contractors to consider.

  • Can a machine learn a new language quickly — say, a dialect of Somali being spoken by pirates — so it could instantaneously translate intercepted communications?
  • How could hackers attack a U.S. national health database and how can it be protected?
  • Could a software program use cultural and linguistic clues from interrogations to predict a terrorist attack?

The whole idea is to go beyond the threats of today, to anticipate the national security needs of tomorrow,” said Senator Barbara Mikulski, who fought to have IARPA’s new headquarters in Maryland. “We’re not going to be inventing gadgets here,” Mikulski, a Democrat, sniffed in an interview after the dedication Monday of the incomplete, $40 million building that will house IARPA. “We’re talking technology breakthroughs,” she said. “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are stampeding across the planet as we speak, and there are those who have a predatory intent against the United States of America. We have to stand sentry to make sure that never, ever again is there an attack on the United States and its interests abroad.”

IARPA, a collaboration among intelligence officials and experts from academia and business, was formed in 2007 and patterned after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA investigates futuristic military projects such as armed unmanned aerial vehicles, common in the skies over Afghanistan and Pakistan, which its engineers dreamed of in the 1980s.

The initiative until now has had no permanent home. When its nondescript, highly secure building opens this fall, it will nestle in the M-Square campus along with new offices for the University’s Center for the Advanced Study of Language, the National Foreign Language Center, the NOAA Center for Weather and Climate Prediction, and the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. IARPA will have easy access to the nearby National Security Agency, the Office of Naval Intelligence in Suitland and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Bethesda.

Funded by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the civilian secretariat that oversees all U.S. intelligence agencies, IARPA awards competitive grants for research into “high-risk, high-payoff projects,” officials said. Most of the research is highly technical, and highly classified.

In the old days, we knew where the enemy was; the problem was we couldn’t kill them fast enough,” the director of national intelligence, Adm. Dennis C. Blair, told Wood in a brief interview Monday. “Now it’s almost getting them person by person, and technology can help us do that.”

One key area of research will experiment with modeling and other techniques to reduce the amount of raw data, which officials acknowledge is overwhelming analysts. Another will look for new techniques, perhaps including virtual worlds, that could help analysts sift more efficiently through the mountains of data pouring in from classified and open-source collections.

One current research program involves developing software that could scan eavesdropped conversations in foreign languages to understand a terrorist group’s internal dynamics, determining the power of various leaders and their true intentions, according to IARPA’s Web site.

Intelligence officials swamped with war, terrorism, piracy, competition from Russia and China, swine flu and other problems are looking to the researchers for relief. “They will, I hope,” said Blair, “help us find the right dots to connect.”