A peek inside the newest federal laboratory, at an agency that never had one

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The CIA last fall opened the doors to CIA Labs, the agency’s first laboratory, and now one of 300 federal labs. For why the CIA needed a lab and what it does, deputy director John Lewis joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Lewis, good to have you one.

John Lewis: Thank you for having me, Tom.

Tom Temin: So why does the CIA need a lab to add to the 300 other federal labs, and tell us what’s going on there.

John Lewis: Within the federal government, the agencies and departments of the federal government that conduct research and development, they have the ability to establish a federal lab. And the important thing about a federal lab is that it addresses the needs and the alignment with those individual government agencies and departments. And then as a federal lab, you become part of that greater, as you mentioned, over 300 federal labs, there is a federal labs Consortium. So it gives us the opportunity to work within that ecosystem, and to collaborate across that ecosystem much more efficiently. And the other aspect of the importance of a federal lab for the Central Intelligence Agency is it’s a forward facing research entity that’s very well understood by the US research ecosystem. We do have a need to be engaged with that ecosystem. And it’s not always simple for us to do that with the way organization and structure. And so we’re trying to make sure that we’re able to plug into that ecosystem within academia and industrial partners, and other government agencies, and make sure that we’re able to execute research that we need to do to complement the IC and agency requirements for intelligence missions.

Tom Temin: And what are some of the research areas that are important to CIA uniquely that maybe you could also share across the intelligence community or DHS or whatever.

John Lewis: Certainly. There’s a number of areas. And in our original press release, it talked about kind of the nine or ten core areas that will be focused on. Advanced materials and manufacturing, virtual and augmented reality, high performance quantum computing and others. The important aspect is making sure that we’re conducting those elements of the research that apply to us. So it’s important for us to have the opportunity to try to help move technologies forward that may not otherwise move forward. We’ve done that in some of the initial work we’ve done with battery technologies, things that had not found somebody to help sponsor it to move to the next level where it might be transitional. So that’s what we’re trying to do with this lab is make sure that we’re aligning the requirements of the organization with those general topic areas, and then execute research that is relevant to the needs and requirements of our agency. On top of that, we’re also partnering with other US government partners, because we’re not unique in some of the needs that we need. And we want to make sure that we are collaborating where it makes sense, and leveraging each other better. And the federal lab structure allows us to do that more efficiently than we have in the past.

Tom Temin: I was gonna say the biggest danger to any of these is to duplicate efforts or spend twice to do the same type of research when if you all know what everyone else is doing, you can avoid that. Correct?

John Lewis: Correct. That’s one of the important factors of being part of that federal labs Consortium now. It’s very easy now for us to work across that structure, and to leverage the work that others are doing, and to partner where it makes sense to on new work. We’re not looking to go out and build a brand new research center that’s just branded for CIA Labs on advanced materials or manufacturing, for example. We’re looking to make sure that we’re partnering where it makes sense so that we can collaborate and leverage each other, and also leverage our academic and industrial partners.

Tom Temin: And this is the research that you’ll be doing, does it eventually find its way into the operational requirements of the CIA, because the CIA does have a kind of kinetic arm to it? Or are these more basic research types of things, and then the applications will come from industry, or maybe a little of both?

John Lewis: It’s a little of both. We’re doing more towards the early side of research, early to mid level research so that we can get technologies to a transitional state. Once those technologies are in a transitional state, they will then spin out into industry or spin over into some of our legacy industry partners, or spin back into our organization so that they can then be part of other development efforts. The goal of federal labs is we are not here developing capabilities for the CIA, we are developing technologies that are critical to the capabilities of future.

Tom Temin: So no rocket launchers inside a Pantera sports car, for example.

John Lewis: No, no, we’re looking at the technologies that would, for example, how do you make that device last longer with a better battery? So we’re looking for the things that enable other development efforts within the agency, and within the IC.

Tom Temin: And is there a designated building or room or set of rooms somewhere that says this is the CIA lab?

John Lewis: We have a small internal structure, our vision is that, one we’re leveraging the expertise that exists across our organization currently. But we’re not about building a brick and mortar site. That’s been something challenging for government over the years. There’s a number of examples of brick and mortar sites that were built, they reached their end of usefulness, and then government had to figure out what to do with that site next. We want to make sure that we are doing the research where it makes sense and how it makes sense. And what that means is, for example, with academic partners, we’re not going to try to go out and build a new lab, we’re going to find those academic partners that have the capabilities that we want to partner on and leverage for that research lab. So it’s not about brick and mortar space, it’s about doing it where it makes sense. And that also gives us the advantage that we would be able to to set stand up and modify and tear down these research efforts as desired because we haven’t created a brick and mortar structure around it, we brought together the expertise and the capabilities that are necessary to move these research efforts forward.

Tom Temin: Are you primarily then a grant making organization or are there actual CIA people that are doing research, or again both?

John Lewis: It’s going to be a blend of both as I said. We’re going to be tapping into our internal expertise. One of the important factors of the CIA federal lab is the ability to continue to develop and sustain the expertise of our officers. As you’re well aware, we can be rather insular in our nature, which then makes it challenging, we hire officers with expertise, and we hire officers with a certain experience. And then we kind of lodge them in a bit of a vacuum. This gives us the ability to be part of that US research ecosystem, and make sure that our officers are able to continue to develop their expertise, and sustain that expertise for the organization, so that we can do a better job of not just research, but also our development side.

Tom Temin: And how might this look, say from a practical standpoint, you mentioned battery technologies, and probably half the world is pursuing better battery technologies for just about everything you can think of, from vehicles to embedded devices and Internet of Things, gadgets, and so on. So just give us a sense of how that would work, for example, that specific case for batteries.

John Lewis: Certainly. One example is at one of our academic partners, we came across some research that had been done probably five or six years ago, it showed interest for some of our needs. It had not moved forward, because there had not been a sponsor to help validate that that was a necessary technology to continue proceeding on. But we had our internal experts review the technology and they determined that it had benefit for the work that we were trying to do in advancing some of our battery technologies. So then we were able to work with this partner, pick up that research and help move it towards a transitional state. And that’s what we’re doing right now with this one partner. We’re moving that technology towards a transitional state. As research goes, it may move forward to a successful point or we may get to a point where we find that it truly was not feasible for a production type effort. But we have to do that kind of investigation and exploration to make sure that we’re trying to advance the needs and capabilities of organization, the IC and even industry.

Tom Temin: And just briefly tell us about yourself. How did you come to this position, since it’s a new entity for CIA? Did you come into CIA for this purpose, or have you been there a while?

John Lewis: I’ve been here for quite some time, I came into the agency in the late 80s. And had have had a long career with the organization. It took us probably two and a half years to get from the inception point with CIA federal labs, to actually standing up and signing the authorization memo back in September. And during that time, I was in one of our senior scientist roles in the organization. And I was supporting this small team that was working to CIA Labs’ effort to establish the organization. But my career with the agency has spanned the technical operations arena, the research and development arena, and then some other administrative chores over the time. But it’s been a long and good career, and I think it positioned me well with a background that I’ve had to help work with the federal lab effort.

Tom Temin: I was gonna say it sounds like you have had a chance to sip your own champagne.

John Lewis: Well, we’ll see about sipping the champagne, it takes a while, it’s a lot of work right now. And we’re in the process of stand up, we’ll have a day when it feels like we’re drinking the champagne, I’m sure.

Tom Temin: And you’re getting good signals from the new leadership coming in that this is something they want to continue.

John Lewis: There is enthusiasm within Congress to see the agency and IC see doing more of the relevant research to the needs of the community and the agency. It’s a challenge for our agency in that we are a tactical agency, and so the things that suffer first are typically things like training and research. So we’re working to build a better structure and work with Congress to try to make sure that we’re doing what’s necessary and what’s needed to move us forward and make sure that we continue to maintain our relevancy and our ability to respond to requirements and and the needs of the IC and agency.

Tom Temin: John Lewis is Deputy Director of the CIA Lab. Thanks so much for joining me.

John Lewis: Been my pleasure, Tom. Thanks for having me.

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