Harry Potter at Homeland Security
It's no secret there are major problems within the U.S. intelligence community, and that the big shots in Washington are determined to do something about it. On the heels of the 9/11 Commission's recommendations, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Pat Roberts has just forwarded a radical restructuring plan to unify the major components of the intelligence community under one roof, including eliminating the CIA entirely.
Roberts' plan is the most recent – but it's not the most unusual proposal to reform the country's intelligence operations. That distinction may belong to Marc Tobias, a relative unknown to Washington, but a man who swears he knows what's wrong with U.S. intelligence: it doesn't have any young hackers running the show.
Young hackers don't have the steely discipline of career agents, or the experience managing project budgets. But they are shockingly creative and open-minded – two things the spooks of today lack sorely.
Witness the accomplishments of Nathaniel Heatwole, the 20-year-old who repeatedly sneaked weapons onto airplanes to show weaknesses in the airport security system in 2003. Or John Walker Lindh, the teen Taliban who trained at an Afghan terrorist camp – even met Osama bin Laden – when the $40 billion-a-year U.S. intelligence community couldn't get anyone close.
With such talents in demand by the nation's spy organizations, why not train smart, motivated teenagers as intelligence professionals? "Frankly, that's what we need," says Marc Tobias over tea one morning between training government security professionals about lock-picking (his specialty) and meeting with clients of his private security firm.
Tobias is an unorthodox reformer in the U.S. intelligence community. A 35-year veteran of criminal investigations, his biggest claim to fame is probably authoring the foremost textbook on lock-picking. Tobias is convinced that the answer to the nation's intelligence problems is a specialized academy for promising students as young as 15, featuring a curriculum of extensive lessons in "modified spycraft," as he calls it.
"I call it Harry Potter meets Homeland Security," says Tobias. His academy would also offer classes covering "liberal arts, engineering, chemistry, physics," and other traditional topics.
The core of Tobias' program would aim to teach students how to compromise virtually every security system available, so that students can start thinking how terrorists and other criminals might try to evade the nation's security systems. "Teach them the vulnerability of locks, security systems, alarms, vaults, safes, computer systems, networks, everything," Tobias says. By the time students graduated, "they'd know how to protect institutions."
Could Tobias' academy use hackers to crack the nearly impenetrable thinking of terrorist organizations?
In early July, Tobias posed that question directly to the hackers in a talk he gave at an international hacker conference known as 5th HOPE, sponsored by the magazine 2600, in New York City.
The audience was intrigued, but had a few concerns. For one, any kind of spy academy would have oversight from the federal government. "There are many people here who would love to make their country safer, but there's plenty of people who wouldn't want to do it at the behest of the government," said one young gentleman. "There's plenty of people here who would love to overthrow their government – let alone obey it."
There's also the problem that any organization would need a curriculum, and rules. Hackers aren't necessarily the biggest fans of such things. "Any time you have an academy and a common curriculum, don't you have the problem of everyone following along with the same thinking, and group-think?" asked one attendee of the 5th HOPE conference, "I'd argue that a lot of people here aren't really big on rules."
Tobias, however, remains convinced that his idea can work, and the hackers will jump on board. "Ninety-nine percent of these people are patriotic, and they'll do what they can to help the country. They may not like the government, but maybe there's reasons not to like the government."
That said, Tobias is sure that if it were announced that a national security academy was being opened, "you'd have a million applications on the first day. Trust me." Tobias already has one pledge: Eric Schmiedl, a 17-year-old hacker from Redmond, Washington, says he would "most definitely" sign up for such an academy, despite the issues still to be settled.
"It's a choice between learning stuff taught be people who may or may not know what they're doing, and [learning] stuff that may or may not apply," Schmeidl says, referring to conventional schooling, "and learning the stuff of movies." What appealed to him – and to others, he says – was "this idea of just being able to learn stuff that few other people know.... This is something that strikes a chord."
Still, Schmeidl says, he wants to know who would run the school, and if it's "integrated into a bureaucracy, like most public schools are these days, without leeway," because he doesn't want it to "run into the standard political red tape and bureaucratic squabbling that plagues our current educational system."
When asked, Tobias wouldn't say what kind of involvement he would want to have in starting or running such a school. "[I would do] whatever I can do," he said. "Look, I'm an idea person.... I've been trained to think outside the box."
What about security? How do you do a background check on a 15-year-old?
"It's easy," Tobias says. Kids usually don't have criminal records, for one. And precious few have dealings with foreign intelligence agencies, so prospective students would be unlikely moles.
There are at least two teen moles in U.S. history – Andrew Daulton Lee and Christopher John Boyce, two high school friends who were convicted of selling spy satellite information to the Russians in the 1970s. But that's no reason not to recruit teenagers. It's not as though the current system is working that well now. Tobias points to FBI mole Robert Hanssen's 2001 arrest as an example of how the current background-check system has holes.
Stifled by a Grey-Suit Mentality
Outlandish as the idea might sound, especially given its pitchman, in comparison to the intelligence reform ideas being tossed around these days by people with serious credentials – from the 9/11 Commission's National Intelligence Director, to would-be vice president John Edwards' proposal for a new domestic spy agency – Tobias' academy seems modest, almost realistic.
In fact, he can even come off as down-to-earth in comparison with what the CIA has already tried: CIA deputy director of intelligence Jami Miscik told the House Select Intelligence Committee on Aug. 4 that the CIA had turned to science fiction authors to dream up plots they should be looking for. "[They] bring a unique perspective to assessing data and spinning out possible scenarios," Miscik said fondly of the authors.
Miscik can get away with that kind of idea because of her intelligence experience, something Tobias, a former South Dakota assistant attorney general, doesn't have. Tobias knows about intelligence only what he's read in the papers and what he's picked up during his 35-year career in criminal investigations. As for education, Tobias' background consists primarily of having a mother who was a teacher. Tobias has no political connections to speak of either – although he does boast a friendship with former South Dakota congressman Bill Janklow, who killed a motorcyclist and ended his political career in a car crash while driving Tobias' Cadillac.
But he says he knows what's wrong with the intelligence community, and his academy is at least part of the solution. "If you put ten bright kids on a problem, they're going to come up with alternative solutions and ideas that I never would have thought of," Tobias said. "And that's the name of the game."
On any other day it might be easy to assume that the nation's capital would dismiss both Tobias and his idea for a Hogwarts-on-the-Potomac. But as the expert lock-picker sat speaking to me with his Earl Grey musing on reforming our security and intelligence systems," members of the 9/11 Commission were holding a press conference on the other side of town, where they blamed the nation's failure to detect and disrupt the 9/11 attacks as, "above all, a failure of imagination." Moreover, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's quiet opposition to the idea of an intelligence chief is that it would stifle creativity and... imagination.
Tobias pointed to the buttoned-up, take-no-chances character of the intelligence community as both one of the greatest threats to his idea, and a threat to national security. "Everyone's got pensions to worry about, retirement, they're afraid to rock the boat," he said. "It's built into the system."
"Maybe all their little grey suits and ties and ways of doing things kept them from thinking outside the box," Tobias said. "They had the intelligence, but nobody believed it.
"But you know what?" asked Tobias. "Kids would believe it."
Tobias may have a powerful new ally on the Hill: deep in his sweeping reform package, Sen. Roberts includes language that directs the new National Intelligence Director to consider creating a "national intelligence university" to train would-be analysts and collectors.
Maybe Washington has a little imagination, after all.