Intelligence goes high tech
Using a new laptop and a satellite link, FBI agents can find out within two minutes whether the fingerprint from a newly captured suspect overseas matches a terrorist database in Virginia.Apparently some in Congress don't like the idea of having a new group to supervise this through the super spy agency they insisted we needed. I think it is one of the better ideas to come out of the reorganization of the spies.
Intelligence officials are running documents in languages such as Arabic through a new computer program called ''English Now.'' It converts the foreign characters into the Roman alphabet and makes words such as Baghdad, President Bush or Osama bin Laden jump out to spies who can't read Arabic.
The language software and the fingerprint-recognition system are examples of new spy gear that the national intelligence director's office bought last year. They may seem like tools that should have been available years ago, but the government isn't noted for its ability to quickly develop new technology.
A fledging center called IARPA is hoping to change that. The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity will try to develop groundbreaking technology for the 16 spy agencies.
One potential tool sounds like it comes from an episode of Star Trek: ''cloaking'' technology that can bend radar around an object to make it appear it's not there. Others include power sources shrunk using nanotechnology and quantum computers that can speed code-breaking, says IARPA acting director Steve Nixon.
In the last half-century, U.S. spy agencies have made technical breakthroughs large and small. In the 1970s, the CIA shared its lithium-iodine batteries with the medical field, which now uses them in pacemakers. Its scientists developed microdot cameras that can produce images so small that they can be hidden in the period of this sentence. They also built a life-size robotic dragonfly that could have been used for surveillance, if only it could have handled crosswinds.
If IARPA can clear some crucial hurdles, including convincing its congressional skeptics, the new office will be modeled after a similar agency that develops gee-whiz toys for the Pentagon.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was created after the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, driving home the U.S. competitive disadvantage in space. Since then, DARPA researchers have brought the United States much-heralded advances including stealth technology, global positioning systems and the Internet.