Notes from a CSIS Virtual Event: Innovation in the Intelligence Community

By Jeff Berkowitz
On October 15, CSIS hosted a webinar with Congressman Jim Himes (CT-4) on the findings of the latest report by the House Subcommittee on Strategic Technologies and Advanced Research (STAR), which detailed how the U.S. government can help promote innovation in the intelligence community. Congressman Himes is the chairman of the Subcommittee of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
On October 6, the STAR subcommittee released its findings after an 18-month research effort. The report was structured around five recommendations:
1) getting the funding right,
2) getting the people right,
3) cultivating a culture of innovation,
4) improving strategic leadership, and
5) leading in the development of international norms.
During the discussion, Congressman Himes emphasized the importance of creating a better flow of people and information between the intelligence community and the private sector, and not just defaulting to a money-driven solution to trigger innovation. This could be extended to building a closer relationship with foreign counterparts on research and development, modernizing the security clearance process, and increasing a federal willingness to take on risk.
Congressman Himes acknowledged that the idea of reconfiguring the federal innovation apparatus is not a new concept while hedging that Congress has been slow to catch up to modern technology. As such, he noted that “We are trying to create a culture in Congress that is much more accepting of risk and the inevitable failures”. Leaders in Congress need to continue to reinforce innovation units such as In-Q-Tel and IARPA to support change. The fundamental problem highlighted was not a lack of innovation within the IC, but rather an adoption problem. Possible solutions proposed by Congressman Himes to initiate this culture change included the more effective communication of success stories to Congressional leaders, holding incumbent defense contractors accountable, and having a more motivated leadership base.
In addition to discussing methods for stimulating a culture of innovation, Congressman Himes emphasized the importance of a robust relationship between the public and private sectors in the area of national security innovation. As of now there is a “meaningful rift” between the two communities, and there is little doubt that the country would benefit from a more open, free flow of talent and information. Much of this ought to be driven by taking a similar approach to Venture Capital firms, focusing on talent acquisition and development. Among other options, Congressman Himes highlighted the importance of improving the slow clearance process, floated the option of creating a digital service in the future, and suggested otherwise limiting the constraints of the federal bureaucracy. He also hypothesized that the country could build towards solving workforce issues in the IC/innovation space by turning reforming and revising STEM education and immigration policy to better welcome innovation inclined immigrants.
Another central factor to the growth of defense innovation is the existence, or lack thereof, of international norms surrounding emerging technology. Congressman Himes noted that the United States ought to seek to formalize norms by leveraging relationships in multinational organizations. Although this could be difficult given the rapid pace of technological change and runs the risk of limiting U.S. capabilities, he stressed that the benefits of internationally recognized norms almost always outweigh the risks, even if some countries violate them.
Ultimately, when asked about how to move this report forward and initiate constructive and tangible steps forward, Congressman Himes recognized that the U.S. Congress lacks tech savvy, and that pressing forward remains a challenge. With this critical institutional limitation in mind, he lamented the loss the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment in 1995 and hopes to bring a heightened sense of technological awareness back to Congress. Without an adequate understanding of the underpinnings of modern innovation, whether it be quantum, AI, or any other defense relevant technology, it will remain challenging for Congress to effectively legislate and guide the U.S. military innovation space in the right direction.

Jeff Berkowitz is a research intern with the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

The Technology Policy Blog is produced by the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).