IM this article to a friend!

November 4, 2002

RIT planning to forge new technology ties with CIA

From: Rochester Democrat Chronicle, NY
Nov. 4, 2002

By Matthew Daneman
Democrat and Chronicle

(November 4, 2002) — The small graphite discs, inlaid with traces of cobalt and nickel, look like quarters dipped in coal dust.

But they are the keys to a technological revolution, and perhaps one key to Rochester Institute of Technology plans to forge strong new ties to the Central Intelligence Agen-cy.

When blasted with a high-power laser, residue from the black discs forms into long hollow carbon tubes far thinner than a human hair. That microscopic spaghetti is a building block for a generation of machinery smaller than the eye can see.

Such tiny machinery, though, will need tiny power sources to run them. And research into such minuscule batteries -- the field of “nanopower” -- was one area that piqued the interest of the CIA’s top scientist when he toured RIT this August.

Military and intelligence applications of such a tiny technology are plentiful, said Ryne Raffaelle, co-director with Tom Gennett of RIT’s new Nanopower Research Lab. Nanopower research at RIT could one day be used to power tiny monitors that watch for biological agents such as anthrax, or for bomb-making materials.

And such small, lightweight power sources also could run the increasing amount of gadgetry soldiers carry into combat.

After the CIA’s chief scientist, John Phillips, saw the lab and talked with researchers there, the nation’s top spy agency requested more information about RIT’s research into such power sources as microelectronic fuel cells and lithium ion batteries.

That couldn’t please RIT President Albert Simone more. The school is in the early stages of trying to cement new links to the CIA and the intelligence community at large.

Meanwhile, the nation’s defense and intelligence agencies, prompted largely by the war on terrorism, are increasingly turning to higher education to provide specialized research or training.

“Within the intelligence community, we’re really trying to outreach to a lot of universities and industry,” Phillips said. “For one thing, during the downsizing after the Cold War, we lost a lot of our technical expertise.

“For another ... you probably read Alice in Wonderland. The Red Queen -- the faster she ran the faster the environment ran by her. That’s how we feel. There’s so much new technology out there. We can’t do things in isolation in the intelligence community.”

RIT has had links to the CIA for years. It is one of about five dozen schools nationwide where the CIA sends job recruiters. However, when RIT’s longtime and particularly close ties to the agency first came to light in 1991, it prompted a campus uproar and community outcry.

Simone said this push for a new closeness comes as part of the philosophy he has pursued since he was named president in 1992 -- a philosophy “of forming partnerships with industry and government,” he said.

RIT already does $7 million or so in government-sponsored work a year, such as research for NASA into a satellite system that would track forest fires, Boyd said.

But on the hierarchy of federal spending at RIT, Simone said, “the intelligence community is way down the list. That’s why we want to get them up.”

Simone’s vision has the RIT tailoring educational programs and research to the needs of the nation’s top spy agency the same way the university works, for example, with Xerox Corp. and Eastman Kodak Co. But the CIA effort comes with an extra impetus.

“We have a special opportunity to serve the U.S. government,” Simone said. “This is the greatest country on the face of the Earth. Not that it doesn’t have its problems. (But) it needs to survive and be a role model for other nations. We should be proud to contribute.”

To that end, the school is in the midst of what Simone called “the mating dance” with the CIA.

AT RIT’s invitation, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet gave last spring’s commencement address. And in August, Phillips spent several days on campus seeing what academic programs and high-tech research may be of interest to the agency.

Aside from the obvious -- its micro electronics and imaging science work -- the CIA could even find some potential in RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf and research there that could be applied to ungarbling messages, Phillips said.

And the CIA is putting together some potential problems that could be projects for RIT seniors from various disciplines. It expects to present a list of project ideas for RIT’s consideration later this month.

Phillips said he anticipated that he or one of his staff would come back to RIT later this school year to talk to students about these senior projects. “We have to have an enduring relationship,” Phillips said. “I don’t want it to be a one-shot affair.”

Other links

RIT’s goals go beyond the CIA, said Don Boyd, associate provost for outreach programs. The university also is trying to beef up its links with the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. One of that agency’s top officials, Deputy Director Joanne Isham, visited campus last academic year.

Now NIMA -- established by the Defense Department -- is one sponsor, along with Kodak, of some nonclassified research into imaging software at RIT. NIMA job recruiters came to campus earlier this school year on “a scouting trip,” Boyd said.

The federal government is already the nation’s single-largest bankroller of university research. While there are no hard numbers, the federal agencies that fund such work -- such as the Defense Department and the National Science Foundation -- are increasingly emphasizing research with a counterterrorism or homeland security application, according to the American Association of Universities.

Creation of the new Cabinet-level U.S. Department of Homeland Security -- currently bottled up in Congress -- would result in yet another source of money for research focusing on defense, intelligence and counterterrorism, according to the association.

Government is cementing closer ties with academia and industry because of the war on terrorism and major changes in the nation’s intelligence community, said Stephen Baker, a retired Navy rear admiral and a senior fellow with the nonprofit Center for Defense Information.

The moves toward closer ties are only in their infancy, he added. “All that points to an opening up, if you will, and putting the money behind that,” he said.

Defense Department spending on college and university research and training nearly doubled, to almost $120 million, in the 2002 budget, which passed late last fall.

The requests for proposals coming from federal agencies are increasingly for research that has an intelligence or defense use, said Paul Slattery, University of Rochester’s dean of research.

“Everybody knows there’s going to be a lot of money coming out of the federal government,” said Eby Friedman, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UR and director of the state-created Center for Electronic Imaging Systems based there. “So you (as a researcher) go where the money goes.”

UR has not made forging ties to the CIA a goal, however.

Stronger ties

Simone’s goals go beyond getting the CIA and other intelligence agencies to sponsor more research projects in RIT labs.

He said he also foresees more intelligence personnel teaching at and studying at RIT, the CIA funding scholarships, more RIT faculty taking sabbaticals to work with the spy agency, and more students doing internships and co-ops with the CIA and other intelligence arms of the government.

“The idea is more. We want to be more engaged than we are now. We’re working hard to see that happen,” he said. “The mating dance is still going on.”

Now, Boyd said, “we stay after them.”

To that end, RIT and Phillips have kept in intermittent contact since August, usually by occasional e-mail, Boyd said. Phillips also is identifying some “generic (technical) problems of interest to them” that will be sent to RIT faculty for students to work on.

“We do this on occasion with companies” as well, Boyd said. If an RIT researcher or student comes up with a particularly intriguing solution, Boyd said, it could grow into formal research projects with the CIA.

RIT also hopes to parlay its contacts into better shots at landing CIA research when the agency requests proposals. “As the case may be, they often will award those to universities or people they have become somewhat familiar to,” Boyd said.

Agreed Phillips, “the intelligence community is kind of a tight-knit group.”

Nevertheless, he added, RIT is definitely on the path to being part of that circle, due to both the high-tech programs at the university and the administration’s attitude.

“Al and other people, if they didn’t want us to go there, we wouldn’t be going there,” Phillips said. “The environment is very conducive to doing more.”

Simone’s goals have raised the concerns of some RIT faculty, particularly in light of the 1991 campus controversy.

The CIA has “a bad track record here,” said Jean Douthwright, a biology professor who has been one of the campus’ most outspoken critics of the intelligence agency. “I don’t see any reason to bring them back.”

The hurdles

In some ways, the spy agency never left campus. The CIA employs roughly six dozen RIT alumni, mostly in technical fields, according to the CIA. And the lines at the CIA recruiting table at a campus job fair last spring were the longest, Simone said.

Robert Davila, CEO of RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf, was speaker a year ago at the CIA’s Disability Awareness Day in Langley, Va. Because of that visit, Davila said, a CIA recruiter came to NTID a few weeks ago and interviewed several students.

“The trustees have always believed it was OK for RIT to work with the CIA or any legitimate agency of the government,” said Robert Kohler Jr., a retired director of the CIA’s Office of Development and Engineering and a member of the RIT board of trustees. It was through him that RIT finagled a talk by Tenet when the RIT board of trustees met in Washington in the summer of 2001. That talk led to Tenet’s invitation to be commencement speaker.

However, RIT’s one CIA-sponsored research project -- classified work into software development being done by subsidiary RIT Research Corp. -- wrapped up in July, according to RIT.

Michael Maloney, 22, of Syracuse and vice president of Student Government, said most students see increased CIA presence as a plus -- “for patriotic sense and for job opportunities.”

Nevertheless, said Douthwright and other faculty, the secretiveness of the CIA and of classified research goes against the basic tenet of a university. Most were unaware of Phillips’ visit until last month when it was reported in the Wall Street Journal.

“Any group of people who aren’t free to speak about what they do, it doesn’t benefit education at all,” said Douthwright. “If you want to do research with the CIA, go work for the CIA.”

Other faculty disagree.

“It’s so hypocritical,” Raffaelle said. “Here I can work with Kodak on something that’s proprietary. Proprietary is OK because that’s business interests and those are pure?”

As a topic on campus, though, the CIA is “not even on the radar,” said RIT Academic Senate Executive Committee chairwoman Joyce Hertzson. The professor in RIT’s College of Imaging Arts and Sciences said it has not been a topic since debate over last spring’s commencement address.

Students also have not been talking much about the CIA since last spring, said Kathryn Tatar, 19, of South Wales, Erie County, and the RIT Student Government representative from the College of Science.

“I don’t think that many people are aware of what President Simone wants to do.”

In 1991

# Rochester Institute of Technology’s close ties to the CIA were a major controversy when they became public in 1991. Among those links: The CIA and RIT had signed a memorandum in 1985, laying out ways the agency would have control at the school. For example, at the Center for Imaging Science, the CIA would have a hand in appointing faculty and setting curriculum.
# The CIA had an ‘’Officer in Residence’’ program in which a senior officer came to RIT ostensibly to teach or study but also recruited students.

Because of the outcry, then-RIT President M. Richard Rose resigned.

The controversy came because RIT’s connections to the CIA were not out in the open, not because of the CIA connections themselves, said Albert Simone, who was appointed president in September 1992. Now all sponsored research at RIT -- whether paid for by the government or by private sources -- is supposed to be cataloged in an annual report kept on file at the campus library. ‘’The thing that’s different today is it’s an open book,’’ Simone said.

Copyright 2002 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.