Defense Secretary Ash Carter arrives for a news conference at the Pentagon, Thursday, April 16, 2015. ANDREW HARNIK/AP
Nearly two years after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the agency had penetrated the internal systems of Facebook, Google and other companies, tech executives still harbor hard feelings. That’s led to a strained relationship with the Pentagon. “The Snowden issue clouds things,” United States Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter acknowledged during a visit to WIRED’s New York offices Monday.
Nevertheless, with cyberterrorism on the rise, the Pentagon has never needed tech’s know-how more.
To be fair, Snowden’s explosive revelations are not the only reason Silicon Valley and the Pentagon don’t always get along. For one thing, the institutions that reside within each world operate very differently. The military moves slowly, while startups move quickly. Military personnel adhere to an immutable job hierarchy, respecting traditional career paths, while techies often skip college, change jobs frequently, and start their own companies.
Carter has made it his mission to build a stronger working relationship between the Defense Department and techies. His visit to Silicon Valley last week, in which he delivered a speech at Stanford and stopped in at Facebook and Andreessen Horowitz, marked the first time in nearly 20 years that a defense secretary has toured Silicon Valley.
Carter has suggested reforming the military’s personnel system so he can take better advantage of private sector talent. And he wants to make it easier for the Pentagon to approve outside contractors, a process that currently takes up to two years. “For many companies, that’s an eternity when you are living on a shoestring budget,” he told WIRED. As a result, the defense department too often works with legacy vendors skilled in winning its contracts. “If what we reward in terms of federal moneys are people who have the knack for working with us rather than people who do the best job, that’s a disaster.”
A New Strategy
Carter’s tech forward perspective comes from personal experience. The physicist-turned-Pentagon chief had just moved to the West Coast, where he was a distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a lecturer at the university, when President Obama called him back to Washington DC in February to serve as defense secretary. Before that, he spent part of 2014 advising large investment firms on technology and defense investments as a senior partner with the consulting firm Global Technology Partners.
While Carter was speaking at Stanford, the DOD revealed details of a new cyber strategy—the first update since 2011—that calls for 133 teams of military, civilian, and defense contractors to be in place by 2018. To help its recruiting efforts, Carter is creating a Silicon Valley office, the Defense Innovation Unit X, not far from Google’s headquarters. The outpost will scout for new and emerging technologies, help startups find new ways of working with the military, and serve as a West Coast base for recruits.
If what we reward in terms of federal moneys are people who have the knack for working with us rather than people who do the best job, that’s a disaster. Ashton Carter, Secretary of Defense
The Pentagon also has established a branch of the U.S. Digital Service, which puts techies to work on tough government problems for short periods. Already, 16 people are helping out in three teams. One, for example, is focused on making the health-record systems of the DOD and the Department of Veteran Affairs interoperable. “The technical community likes the problems we work on,” Carter said. “I’ve been taking them in on a temporary basis, saying, ‘Come do this for a year. You don’t have to be with us forever.’”
Carter also is helping the Pentagon invest in new technologies. He pointed out that the government can’t keep up with VC firms, but nonetheless, “I want to get more in that business.” Right now, the Pentagon makes small investments through In-Q-Tel, a nonprofit that has worked with the intelligence community to fund start-up companies working on security-related emerging technologies. “If that’s successful we’ll scale that up,” he said.
Meanwhile, Carter is addressing the legacy of Snowden’s actions by engaging tech’s leaders in conversation. The two communities need each other, he said, and his initiatives are, in part, a way he hopes to improve the relationship.