TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Thinking big can lead to breakthroughs or spectacular failures. And the Pentagon agency DARPA has had its share of both. DARPA is the acronym for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It started off as ARPA before the D was added for defense. Its mission is to create innovative defense technologies. Its projects have ranged from space-based missile shields to cyborg insects. Its innovations have had practical applications in the civilian world, ranging from the Internet to robot vacuum cleaners.
My guest, Sharon Weinberger, is the author of a new book about DARPA called “The Imagineers Of War.” Her research includes recently declassified documents, as well as interviews she conducted with people who have worked on DARPA projects. She’s the national security editor at The Intercept, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former editor-in-chief of Defense Technology International.
Welcome back to FRESH AIR. What are some of the most impressive successes of DARPA?
SHARON WEINBERGER: Well, let’s start with the first success that has really cemented DARPA’s reputation today. And that would be ARPANET, which was the precursor and laid the foundation for the modern Internet. That is undoubtedly the agency’s biggest success. And because of the name itself, ARPANET is sort of synonymous with DARPA today. But there are many other innovations that they get less credit for but in fact go back directly to the agency’s work. The driverless cars, autonomous self-driving cars that are now coming to fruition date back to a series of robotic car races that DARPA sponsored beginning in 2004, 2005.
Some of DARPA’s other biggest, quote, unquote, “successes” are stealth aircraft. They sponsored the development of the first stealth prototype aircraft in the 1970s. Precision weapons is another DARPA innovation. Drones, particularly the Predator drone that we now associate with the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere date back to DARPA sponsorship.
GROSS: And there’s also some pretty big failures that DARPA was responsible for. Tell us about a couple of those.
WEINBERGER: There are a number of failures. I think that the ones that are sort of best known are the National Aero-Space Plane, which was a plan in the 1980s to have a single-stage-to-orbit space plane. Basically a plane that would take off from a runway, rather than being launched by a rocket, go into space where it could be anything – it could be a spy plane, it could be a space bomber – re-enter the atmosphere and then land again like an airplane. You know, at one point, you know, the cost of this program had grown to the billions of dollars and was eventually canceled. It had grown very complex, very expensive.
Other notable “failures” – and I’ll put this in quotes – are, for example, what was called the Strategic Computing Initiative. This was an effort – a billion dollar effort in the 1980s to create artificial intelligence. There was a lot of publicity around the program, a little bit of controversy around the program as well. And it ended in failure such that, well, for starters, they never created artificial intelligence. But most of the programs and companies that were sponsored under the program did not succeed.
However, as with a lot of failures in DARPA, as you see now a lot of excitement about artificial intelligence, there’s a strong argument to be made that DARPA laid the foundations for that. So was that program a failure? Maybe in a sense it’s too early to say.
GROSS: So it was created in 1958. What was the point when it was created – of DARPA?
WEINBERGER: So let’s take us back to that moment in time. In the fall of 1957, the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. And, you know, the mythology that has developed around that was it, you know, it sparked this immediate national panic with, you know, Americans looking up at the sky trying to see the Soviet satellite. And the idea was not only that the Soviets were ahead in the space race, but the ability to launch a satellite was also linked to the ability to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles, i.e. that they could launch a nuclear weapon that could reach the continental United States.
So the reality was actually a bit different, that when Sputnik was launched, it was a little bit esoteric. It was in the back pages of newspapers. But it became a lightning rod in Washington, a way for critics of the Eisenhower administration to really attack the president. And so it became this political panic within a number of weeks. And so just as after 9/11 there was a push to sort of reorganize government to have the government respond – after 9/11 it was the creation of Department of Homeland Security – Eisenhower was under pressure to sort of reorganize things.
And the proposal that moved forward was to create what was then called the Advanced Research Projects Agency. It was to be actually the nation’s first space agency prior to the foundation of NASA. All of the satellite and rocket programs, civil and military, were put in what was called ARPA in those early days with the main goal of getting the nation into space.
Now, a secondary goal that was articulated by the secretary of defense was that this new agency would also develop the, quote, “vast weapons systems of the future.” And that was ARPA in its beginning days in 1958, a space agency and also looking ahead to these, you know, vast weapons systems.
GROSS: So it lost the function of space agency ’cause NASA took that over, and it became more dedicated to defense?
WEINBERGER: Well, two things happened. Eisenhower was very heavily influenced by his science advisers. And they lobbied heavily to have a civil, you know, a civilian agency for space. So Eisenhower, when he authorized the creation of DARPA – or ARPA at the time – he specifically said that when a civilian agency is created – which was to be NASA – that the civil rocket and satellite programs would move out of DARPA and over to this new agency. But it was expected at the time that DARPA would keep the military space programs.
Well, within a year and a half, that didn’t happen. There was a bureaucratic war in the Pentagon. And the military services – the Army, Navy and Air Force – got their programs back. So you suddenly had, you know, it’s 1959, this agency isn’t even two years old and it’s left without its main mission and sort of adrift at sea.
GROSS: So what did it do?
WEINBERGER: What DARPA had at the time was a man who eventually rose to be deputy director. And his name was William Godel. He was actually not a scientist or a scientific manager. He was an intelligence operative who’d been put at DARPA in the early days to represent the interests of the spy community, of the intelligence community. And so he looked at this young agency that now didn’t really have a mission. And he thought, well, maybe we can mold this agency around the strategic threats that I see. And he looked out at the world.
And for him, the space race was mostly a psychological game. You know, it was public relations. The threat of nuclear Armageddon, no matter how big a threat, was not a likely scenario. He had had a lot of experience in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia. And he looked at countries like the Philippines and particularly the Vietnam. And he thought the most likely way the United States would confront the Soviet Union would be through the sort of proxy wars, where the United States would have – would back regimes fighting Communist insurgencies. And he thought we could take DARPA to Vietnam.
GROSS: And he literally did. I mean, he set up a branch of DARPA in Southeast Asia.
WEINBERGER: He literally did go to Vietnam. He pitched this to President Kennedy, who approved it. And it was to be the ARPA Combat Development and Test Center. And it was to be a center based in Vietnam that would help the South Vietnamese military with jungle warfare. And it would also help the U.S. military advisers who were starting to go to Vietnam work with the South Vietnamese. And his vision of it, you know, it was the original sort of counterinsurgency mission, not what we saw in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the idea that you don’t want U.S. troops in these countries.
You want to work with the militaries and the governments that we are backing and teach them how to deal with these insurgencies so that U.S. troops don’t have to go there. And that was his vision when he took off for Vietnam in 1961, literally with a suitcase full of cash, went to the president of South Vietnam – President Diem – and pitched this idea.
GROSS: So theoretically this could have been a success, keep American troops out of Vietnam while still having the outcome America wanted in Vietnam. But what happened actually is that DARPA creates, for instance, Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant that not only just, like, parched the Earth but also had, like, really toxic side effects not only for Vietnamese people but for American troops who were exposed to it and came back with mysterious symptoms that no one could diagnose and eventually were attributed to Agent Orange. What were some of the other outcomes in Vietnam that didn’t go so well?
WEINBERGER: There were a number of things that didn’t go so well. So let’s start with the example of Agent Orange and chemical defoliation. So this is truly and sadly a DARPA innovation, meaning DARPA under William Godel proposed this idea of doing experiments with chemical defoliation and with what were called the rainbow agents of which Agent Orange was one of them.
Now, William Godel’s vision – this goes back to the idea of whether it was, quote, “a good thing” – his idea was not that you would hit crops initially. That was one idea. He had the idea of using chemical defoliation in a very specific way that you would eliminate some areas of jungle cover that were being used by the insurgents and also that you would do targets of food supply of specific crops that the Viet Cong, the communist insurgents, were using as basically subsistence.
But what quickly happened is that there’s always a difference between sort of the technology ideas and the political strategy. Very quickly, President Diem, the president of South Vietnam, he wanted to use chemical defoliation much more widely. He didn’t really care about whose food crops he was hitting. There is this very sort of poignant scene that I recreate in the book where Jack Ruina, the director of DARPA who is sort of a classic scientist, technologist. He was not interested in this counterinsurgency work. He meets with President Diem in Vietnam, and the president pulls out this map, you know, showing where they want to do chemical defoliation.
And Jack Ruina, the DARPA director says, well, how do you know which crops are the Viet Cong’s crops and which crops are just, you know, sort of innocent peasants? And the president said, oh, I know. And he didn’t know. He just didn’t care, meaning what he wanted to do was make sure that these villages, some of which were under Viet Cong control were dependent on the South Vietnamese government for food.
So already the idea that Godel had had sort of been manipulated and expanded. Now, the question of whether the original idea that Godel had was good, certainly the idea of keeping U.S. troops out of Vietnam with retrospect was a very good idea, but at the end of the day, you were working with a flawed and quite corrupt government. So whether any combination of technologies and novelties could have made that government work is much more dubious.
GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Sharon Weinberger. She is the author of the new book “The Imagineers Of War: The Untold Story Of DARPA, The Pentagon Agency That Changed The World.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you’re just joining us my guest is Sharon Weinberger, author of the new book “The Imagineers.” It’s about the Pentagon agency called DARPA or ARPA, which was created in 1958. It was initially dedicated to getting the U.S. in space and then to tech innovation in defense. Innovations credited to DARPA or based on DARPA research include the first communications satellites, stealth aircraft, drones, the driverless car, the robot vacuum cleaner and the internet.
Weinberger is the national security editor of The Intercept and former editor in chief of Defense Technology International. OK, so let’s continue in our look at DARPA. So during the Vietnam era in the 1970s, DARPA was doing research on parapsychology and mind control. What were some of the things it was trying to investigate?
WEINBERGER: Well, what happened was there was a great deal of interest in parapsychology in the late 1960s, early 1970s particularly from the intelligence community. So there was a man named Sidney Gottlieb who was the head of the Office of Technical Service at the CIA. He is today most famous for the MK Ultra program. These were the LSD experiments that were conducted by the CIA for, quote, unquote, “mind control” including on unwitting human victims. But Gottleib also had an interest in parapsychology
So I believe it was in the early 1970s that he invites Steve Lukasik who was then a director of DARPA over to his offices, and he wants to talk to Steve about this exciting program that he’s doing in parapsychology. And what was going on was the Soviets, it turned out, had been doing these experiments in parapsychology including one that is as – sort of just grotesque where there was alleged to be sort of a psychic link between mothers and their offspring – or in the case of what the Soviets were allegedly doing experimenting with bunny rabbits – rabbits and their offspring.
And so the idea was if a bunny was killed in a separate room, that the mother rabbit, you know, in a different laboratory, you know, in the same building would somehow react, would know that her offspring had been hurt and killed and that this was done through a sort of mind link. And so the idea – this was being taken very seriously – the idea was that, perhaps, the Soviets thought – or the U.S. believed they thought – this could be used for submarine communication. You know, submarines, nuclear-armed submarines – any the submarines when they’re deep under water are very hard to communicate with.
So how do you let these submarines know that, you know, nuclear Armageddon is coming, you need to surface and launch your missiles? And the idea was somehow this psychic link between the mother rabbit and its offspring would work. You could keep – I don’t know a mother rabbit on the submarine, kill the offspring and that would be a sign that the nuclear submarines should surface. You know, it’s hard to talk about this without laughing, but this was being seriously considered. So…
GROSS: And as part of the research, the Soviets were killing baby rabbits to see if the mother knew it.
GROSS: If the mother in another room knew it.
WEINBERGER: Indeed. That is what was going on. So that was one – I mean, the Soviets were interested across the breadth of parapsychology research – or at least the CIA thought. So the CIA had their own program that they were sponsoring at the Stanford Research Institute out in California where two physicists were working with Uri Geller, perhaps best known as the Israeli magician who also claims, you know, powers in parapsychology. And…
GROSS: Also known as the guy who could bend spoons.
WEINBERGER: The spoon-bender.
GROSS: Because he claimed to be able to bend a spoon, and that was part of his magic act…
GROSS: …Was bending the spoon mentally.
WEINBERGER: So Gottlieb had spoken with the DARPA director, Steve Lukasik, about how wonderful this research was. It was going great. And wouldn’t DARPA be interested in sponsoring it? Now, Steve Lukasik was – you know, he likes it. He thought he was a very creative guy. And he was dubious of the work, but he thought, you know, this is an area where OK, DARPA could be sort of the truth squad in it. That yes, if there really was something, you know, DARPA might fund it. But if it was all sort of, you know, BS then DARPA could also be sort of an honest broker in that.
So he went back to the agency and called together some of the personnel and said, go look at this work. Go around the country. Speak to these people doing parapsychological work not just for the CIA but, you know, there was some work at universities. Bring me anything that works. So George Lawrence, who was a psychologist employed by DARPA, went out across the country. And he looked at the work out at SRI, the Stanford Research Institute. He went to psychic conferences in Scotland. He met witches. He met psychics and looked for, quote, “anything that worked.”
GROSS: Did anything work?
WEINBERGER: You know, quite – I think the most famous of his visits because it was leaked to the press was he went – he brought a – Ray Hyman, who was an amateur magician and also a university professor, and Robert Van de Castle, a professor of sleep studies who believed in premonitions and sort of the truth of premonitions that come in through your dreams. He brought this team out to SRI to meet Uri Geller and to meet the two scientists at SRI who were doing the work.
And they went through these series of tests, you know, where Uri would go into a room with another person and they would draw something, put it in an envelope. And then Uri, just by having the signal through his mind, would try to redraw what the person had drawn. He would try to move, you know, compass needles just with his mind, these series of experiments. And, you know, what Ray Hyman, this amateur magician, and George Lawrence saw were basically – they saw magician tricks.
And they – what they were most appalled by was that, you know, these were physicists, scientists who were supposed to be evaluating the work. And, you know, where were the scientific controls? Where was the skepticism? They didn’t see any of this. And so DARPA did not fund the work. They did report back to the CIA that they didn’t see anything to it. And yet the work continued on in the intelligence community I think for another 10 years.
GROSS: That said, DARPA ended up doing some really exciting research and continues to do exciting research in neuroscience and neurotransmissions, neural implants. Can you describe some of that work, some of the work that’s actually been very successful in subsequent years?
WEINBERGER: Yeah. So the irony of what happened with that program was that George Lawrence, the DARPA program manager who was responsible for, you know, meeting the witches and psychics, you know, he was brought in ’cause he kind of was part of this. You know, he was part of this new age counterculture, which even at DARPA was unusual at the time. You know, he kind of belonged to the zeitgeist. And he was excited by the idea of communicating directly with the human brain. But rather than doing it through magicians or bunny rabbits, he said, suppose we can do it through computers. He had been a close associate of J. C. R. Licklider, who had been the DARPA program manager who had started computing networking, which led to the ARPANET.
And so if you remember, the original days of computer networking was about how do we link man with machine? How do people operate directly with computers so that the computers can help their decision cycle the way we use Google as sort of our collective and individual memory? And so what George said looking at this parapsychology work is, well, suppose we could communicate directly with the human brain using sensors instead of some unknown mechanism. So he laid the foundation for the field of what’s now known often as brain-computer interface, where you have sensors that read neural signals to either control computers, to control machines, what is now being developed into neuroprosthetics, prosthetics that can be, you know, handled, maneuvered with just the human brain rather than through muscles.
It is also leading to – I mean, it’s still very early days, but the idea of quadriplegics, of, quote, unquote, “locked-in” people who can operate computers just by thinking about moving the cursor or thinking about letters. That work is still early days, but it is developing. And that came out of, you know, sort of DARPA’s open-minded interest in areas like parapsychology. I mean, let’s think about it broadly, but let’s bring real science into it and rigor.
GROSS: My guest is Sharon Weinberger. Her new book, “The Imagineers Of War,” is about DARPA, the Pentagon agency that designs futuristic defense technologies. After a break, we’ll talk about a spectacular but misguided project, and we’ll hear about some of the new technologies DARPA is working on now. I’m Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with Sharon Weinberger, author of the new book “The Imagineers Of War.” It’s about DARPA, the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (ph), the Pentagon agency that designs futuristic defense technology. Its innovations include the predecessor of the internet, stealth aircraft, drones, the M-16 and the driverless car. It also came up with ideas that were too far-fetched or too dangerous to reach completion.
So you were talking about how some DARPA projects spiraled out of control. I think under that category we can put the Reagan-era project commonly known as Star Wars, a space-based missile shield to protect against Soviet nuclear attacks. Would you describe what the project was?
WEINBERGER: Well, the project, as it was under the Reagan administration, was the idea of creating literally a shield, some sort of shield that would take out any possible nuclear weapons coming from the Soviet Union or elsewhere. So what this actually dates back to is, again, let’s take us back to the very early days of DARPA. They did lose their mission in space. But what they kept, at least in the early days, was a secondary mission in missile defense.
And there was always a tension at DARPA is is DARPA a national security agency that does science or a science agency that does national security? Meaning which should be the focus? So one of the earliest projects that came out of DARPA was a project called Seesaw, which was a particle beam that was going to blast, you know, nuclear weapons out of space. And this came from a Greek scientist by the name of Nicholas Christofilos, who was sort of a favorite of DARPA.
And he had proposed this particle beam that DARPA sponsored in the early days. And every DARPA director who sponsored it said, well, we knew it wasn’t ever going to really work, but it was marvelous science. Well, now we’re at the early 1980s with Ronald Reagan. And Reagan says, we’re going to try to make it work. And DARPA is suddenly, you know, like, what? You’re going to build this thing that was just sort of an idea? They were shocked.
GROSS: Was President Reagan a little naive about the science that it would take to create the Star Wars defense shield that he was promoting and made it seem like this is really within reach?
WEINBERGER: I don’t think he cared. So naive is one word that you could use but also that it wasn’t – he wasn’t about the technological reality. He really kind of came from this, you know, Hollywood vision, sort of, you know, say you can build it and maybe you can build it. One of the most shocking things about the Star Wars history was that he hadn’t even, you know, before making his announcement, he hadn’t even consulted or listened to the top people in the Pentagon.
I remember from some of the interviews I did and received for the DARPA book, you know, there was these descriptions of Caspar Weinberger, then the defense secretary, just sitting there slack-jawed hearing Reagan announce they were going to build this system because, you know, Weinberger himself had said, you know, what you want to do is just not feasible. The same thing with the DARPA director, the same thing with the Pentagon’s chief technologist. They were just in shock.
Reagan had not consulted with him, had not listened to them when they were saying this is not feasible. I think Reagan really had this vision, not so much that you could make it a technological reality but he could make people believe in it. And for Reagan, that was enough.
GROSS: So how much money did the U.S. spend on the Star Wars initiative?
WEINBERGER: Oh, my, well, don’t forget, it never really ended even to this day. Now, this sort of impressive shield that Reagan talked about, I mean, I think there are numbers in the hundreds of billions that have been invested in Star Wars and all of its sort of component programs. I can say this much. There has been an incredible amount of money that has gone into missile defense based on a belief system.
Even today when you look at the missile defense programs that are being built and used operational, the ones that are supposed to stop intercontinental ballistic missiles, they are doing such a small, small part of either what the particle beam weapon in 1958 was proposing or what Reagan was proposing in the 1980s. And yet we’re still spending money on it.
GROSS: So DARPA was initially very focused on the Cold War and then also on the war in Vietnam. So the war in Vietnam ends, the Cold War ends and DARPA has had to figure out its place in the U.S. in the era of terrorism. So what has DARPA been working on in the era that we’re in now?
WEINBERGER: Well, so there’s two transitions that took place there. One, of course, as you mentioned, was the end of the Vietnam War, which was, you know, it had caused untold problems for the Pentagon, it’d become a lightning rod for DARPA. Congress was becoming very critical of DARPA. So DARPA took all of its technologies from the Vietnam era and renamed the office the Tactical Technology Office, i.e. an office that has nothing to do with Vietnam.
And they really began to focus, as you get into the 1980s and the height of the Cold War, on weapons – precision weapons, you know, drones, stealth aircraft. So then we get to the end of the Cold War. And here is DARPA for the past decade been building weapons to fight the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union goes away, and it’s sort of left just stranded and not knowing what to do. It is often called an agency that is supposed to stop technological surprise. Technological surprise meaning mostly from the Soviet Union.
So what is your mission in the 1990s when that is no longer an issue? And DARPA really struggled to find its place. At one point, they renamed it back to ARPA, looking at it, well, maybe it can be sort of an engine of civil innovation. And really the 1990s were not a great period for DARPA. They did not have a lot of successful programs. Things were not going well for the agency. Then 9/11 happens, and things change again.
GROSS: How did they change?
WEINBERGER: Well, so the director who came in right before 9/11, Tony Tether, really had a vision. He had been at DARPA prior to that. And so he basically said, look, you know, 9/11, terrorism is clearly going to be one of the number one if not the number-one threat facing the United States in the coming years. We need to address this problem. And when he looked at what happened on 9/11, he said, this is a problem of data, that we probably had all of the information we needed to stop this attack, but we didn’t have a good way of integrating it, of centralizing it, of analyzing it.
And he said, this is the area we need to get into, data mining, data analysis, pattern recognition. And that’s what he did. He – things went downhill from there.
GROSS: My guest is Sharon Weinberger. Her new book about DARPA is called “The Imagineers Of War.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: Let’s get back to my interview with Sharon Weinberger, author of the new book “The Imagineers Of War” about the history of DARPA, the Pentagon agency that designs futuristic weapons and defense technology. The agency was created in 1958 during the Cold War, when the focus was defending against a Soviet nuclear attack. During the Vietnam War, DARPA also focused on jungle warfare.
After 9/11, the agency focused on combating terrorism and tried to find ways to mine and analyze public records with the goal of discovering terrorists before they attacked. DARPA organizes the TIA – Total Information Awareness – program designed to mine data, including from American civilians and kind of, you know, coordinate and read the data. And there’s a huge uproar over that.
WEINBERGER: Well, exactly. One of the first things that happened was that Tony Tether, the DARPA director, hired John Poindexter. By way to refresh people’s memories, this was the national security adviser to Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal. He had – Poindexter had been convicted of lying to Congress, although that conviction was tossed out. And what people sometimes forget is that Poindexter had been trained as a physicist, really had a reputation for being quite brilliant. He had had a longtime interest in computers, had helped modernize the White House back in the day, introducing email, introducing networking.
And so after he had sort of faded back into the Washingtechnocracy (ph) after the Iran-Contra scandal, he had been working in data mining. This was the very area he was working in, how do you predict terrorist attacks? And he’d been working under a DARPA contract. Well, after 9/11, Tony Tether thought no one’s going to care. Like, people want – people realize how important this is. This is like a Sputnik moment, that you have to do whatever it takes to win the war. And he didn’t think it would be a problem to hire John Poindexter in at DARPA to run this program called Total Information Awareness.
GROSS: It did not work out.
WEINBERGER: It did not work out. You know, it sort of for a few months seemed to go along fine. You know, Poindexter being hired at DARPA was a bit of a blip. And really the focus was on 9/11. You were starting a war in Afghanistan. You know, that the nation was turning to sort of, what was this threat? But there were already privacy advocates who were looking at what DARPA was proposing to do and saying this is just crazy. Poindexter had originally proposed to DARPA that there would be a two-track program. One would be a black program, meaning a heavily classified program in data analysis. And then there would be a white program, an unclassified program called Total Information Awareness that would involve academics looking at data mining.
When I interviewed Poindexter, what he told me was that the black program never actually took place is what he said, that it was all a white world unclassified program that Poindexter and others began to speak very publicly about, saying, you know, we’re going to take data from everything – it might be credit card records, it might be pharmacy records, travel records, car rental – and combine that with government information – might be classified information – mine it all and try to predict terrorist attacks. Now, what Poindexter’s very careful to say was that they weren’t actually – it was an experiment. It was research. They were not working with real world data.
Instead, they created this simulation initially called Vanilla World, which was made-up data where, you know, it was, you know, millions of households in the United States and a few terrorists. And they brought in experts to sort of what’s called red team it. You know, there will be some who pretend to be terrorists. And they would see if you could recognize the terrorists ahead of time.
GROSS: So the program was ended. The public part of the program was ended, but it ended up going underground as a black program, as a program that’s secret from the public.
WEINBERGER: Well, exactly. So after The New York Times and others wrote about it, it created this huge media firestorm of, you know, people called it an Orwellian program that was going to, you know, look at all of your, you know, personal data. The very fact that it was trying to find terrorists in the United States using what people consider very sensitive data was extremely controversial. So Congress got involved and started, you know, calling up people to talk about what was going on and eventually shut down the program.
Now, what Poindexter argues to me now is that in essence the nation got the worst of both worlds, that rather than an unclassified program that was also sponsoring what he considered to be privacy protection. They were looking at tools that could mask data. Instead, the privacy work was shut down. And the bulk of the program was transferred over to the National Security Agency. It, quote, unquote, “went black.” In his argument, you know, the exact opposite of what he wanted, which is basically highly classified work involving data mining.
GROSS: DARPA has been working on issues related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, trying to figure out ways to deal with traumatic brain injury, dealing with people who come home and having lost one or more limbs. So what’s some of the progress they’ve made in that? I know they don’t like to be identified as a device laboratory. On the other hand, they’ve created devices and created some really practical things that are really helping people.
WEINBERGER: They are. I mean, this work has actually been ongoing at DARPA for a number of years. In a sense, this dates back to the 1970s work on brain computer interface, which went on and was really quite successful in laying the foundations of a scientific field. Well, now we get to the early 2000s. And there was again a revival of this brain computer interface work under Tony Tether at DARPA. Only it was really phrased as, you know, we’re going to create weapons. You know, we’re going to create drones and robots that will be controlled directly by the human mind. It was a very, very sort of science fiction vision.
Well, after sort of the scandal around Total Information Awareness, there was a lot more scrutiny of DARPA programs. So suddenly this talk of yeah, we’re going to be controlling drones with the human mind, it sort of was, you know, that went away. And so when DARPA over the past three or four years got back involved in neuroscience, the language was couched very differently. And in fact, the motivations were quite different because what we were seeing at that point were big problems with traumatic brain injury, big problems with post-traumatic stress disorder.
And so a lot of the DARPA work is linked to that earlier work. It’s talking about brain chips and neuroengineering and brain implants. Only instead of controlling drones, they’re talking about how to recover memories, how to treat depression, how to treat traumatic brain injury.
GROSS: It might be too soon to answer this question, but I’m wondering what DARPA is doing in this era of the Trump administration and if the Trump administration has had any direct communication with DARPA yet about its goals. And specifically I’m wondering about border wall technology. One of President Trump’s big issues is building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. We’ve yet to see what, if anything, will happen with that. But has DARPA come up with things that are likely to be used if that wall is built?
WEINBERGER: Well, in fact, a lot of DARPA’s Vietnam-era technology is used today along the U.S.-Mexican border. The two biggest things are sensors. The sensors that are used along the U.S.-Mexican border date back directly to DARPA’s work, first from its nuclear test detection technology, but then to the electronic barrier it helped with in Vietnam. There are also tethered aerostats, basically blimps that are tethered to the ground along the U.S.-Mexican border which had come – which again comes directly out of DARPA work in Vietnam.
You know, DARPA has a lot of experience in this area. It forwarded the first proposals in 1964 for creating a barrier to basically cut off the supply of weapons and people coming from North Vietnam into South Vietnam. This eventually developed into what was called the McNamara Line, which was again supposed to cut off people and weapons and failed rather spectacularly. So there are a lot of lessons you can learn about, you know, what it takes to build a barrier and what goes wrong. It is very, very hard, expensive, complex and sometimes rather ruthless if you want to cut off people, supplies that are very determined to cross a border.
And these are lessons one hopes are taken into account along the U.S.-Mexican border. But what’s interesting about the current administration is they’re not even talking about technology. The most that the wall has ever been expressed in by Trump or people around him is literally in bricks and mortar. A wall on its own doesn’t do anything if it’s not monitored. So it will have to involve some sort of sensor, some sort of surveillance system. But it’s really too soon. We don’t know. We’ve only heard bricks and mortars.
GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Sharon Weinberger, author of the new book “The Imagineers Of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, The Pentagon Agency That Changed The World.” We’ll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, my guest is Sharon Weinberger, author of the new book “The Imagineers.” It’s about the Pentagon agency called ARPA, which then became DARPA, which was created in 1958. It was initially dedicated to getting the U.S. in space and then turned to tech innovation in the defense field. Innovations credited to DARPA or based on DARPA research include the first communication satellite, stealth aircraft, drones, the driverless car, the robot vacuum cleaner and the internet.
So Siri, the famous, like, Apple voice recognition technology who you can ask questions to and sometimes she can answer them (laughter) – so you say that she is a spinoff of a DARPA project. So when you look at DARPA you have these kind of, like, crazy schemes, crazy high-tech schemes that billions of dollars are spent on that don’t pan out. But you also have things like, you know, drones for warfare, robotic technology that we’re using in daily life, whether it’s a vacuum cleaner or, you know, like, voice recognition technology like Siri.
So you have this mix of, like, you know, grand schemes that work and schemes that end up in things that not only work for defense but that you can use, you know, in the palm of your hand or in your apartment, in your car because the driverless car is another example of something that came out of DARPA research. So when you look at the big picture, what conclusion do you draw about DARPA and its way of operating and the amount of money that’s been spent on its research?
WEINBERGER: I have two thoughts on that. The first is that what we consider a success and failure really has to be broken down into two things. So the name “The Imagineers Of War” is really based on how I saw DARPA in its early days where it was trying to think about, you know, how is the U.S. going to be fighting wars now and in the future, and how do we come up with, you know, imagineer solutions to those problems?
And so if we talk about drones being a success, let’s actually think about that for a second. Drones are certainly a technological success not only, you know, for what it does in the military and the civil field. Has it helped us prosecute our wars more successfully? You know, have 16 years of drones and armed drones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, other countries helped win these wars? I think that’s a much more controversial statement to make to say that was a success. So it goes back to the central question I ask in my book of what is it that you want DARPA to do?
If you want DARPA to solve national-level problems, to sort of solve warfare or make us more safe, then it changes the picture a lot. If you want DARPA to be an agency that produces cute technological novelties like Siri or, you know, driverless cars, to some extent – it’s a great thing, but that doesn’t really change, you know, the national security for the country – then it can do that. Do you want DARPA to be a science fiction agency that does nifty gadgets or do you want it to solve national-level problems? That is always the tension of DARPA and where it’s supposed to go. And in that its legacy is mixed.
What challenges are worthy of a DARPA-type agency? It is arguably the world’s most successful research agency. So where do you want to sort of channel those talents? What do you want it to achieve? I certainly hope that it’s more than just producing gadgets for the military, that the White House or the Pentagon gives it challenges to solve. I think neuroscience and the challenge of helping people with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, those are very noble missions and I think DARPA can contribute a lot.
But if you look at the larger problems that we’re facing after 9/11 and 16 years of war, I don’t think that really anyone is asking, what can DARPA contribute? What can it do to sort of stop the threats that we’re facing today? And that’s the unfortunate part of DARPA, this tremendously successful research agency which isn’t being used the way it was in its early days to address warfare.
GROSS: Sharon Weinberger, thank you so much for talking with us.
WEINBERGER: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Sharon Weinberger’s new book about DARPA is called “The Imagineers Of War.” Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger, who has been covering North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests and the Trump administration response. North Korea claims that it’s preparing to test an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the U.S. I hope you’ll join us.
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GROSS: And now for something I’ve put off doing because I haven’t wanted to face the fact that it has to be done. I have to say goodbye to our producer John Sheehan, who has accepted another position. John has edited zillions of interviews, produced years of our opening billboard – that’s the minute-long introduction to the show – and has produced our Weekend Edition. He’s an audio wizard. And in the past year, he’s written, produced and directed a wonderful podcast that’s a comic adventure series for kids called The Radio Adventures Of Eleanor Amplified.
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UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: From WHYY in Philadelphia.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In a world of no-goodnicks (ph), hucksters, charlatans and flim-flammers (ph), she’s checking facts and taking names. It’s The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified.
GROSS: Eleanor Amplified is about an investigative reporter who’s trying to take down Angela Brant, the nefarious head of a giant tech company called Megablurg that’s trying to take over the world. In addition to the great professional actors John has used, he’s drawn on the extraordinary acting talents of the FRESH AIR family. Listen as the whole staff collectively gasps.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) I’m almost ready to rest my case, congressman. I just have one final witness. I call Eleanor Amplified’s Megablurg 5,000 limited edition SL smartphone.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Gasping).
GROSS: We did good, right? John channeled the true acting talents of Amelia (ph) and Lena (ph), our producer Ann Marie Baldonado’s two daughters. Here they are quarreling in a scene from Eleanor.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Hannah) Hey The Rook, can we play with Norad (ph) again?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As The Rook) Hannah, get out. Mom, Hannah’s in my room again.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Hannah) Mom, The Rook is yelling at me.
GROSS: Nice work, girls. So the good news for us is that John’s new job is requiring him to move only as far as one flight up in the WHYY building where we work. He’s WHYY’s new manager of on-demand audio and podcasts. And part of his job is continuing to create new episodes of “Eleanor.” Even so, we’re heartbroken he’s no longer part of the FRESH AIR crew.
I want to close today’s show with the best FRESH AIR ending ever, which was of course conceived and produced by John. It’s from last summer, when he came on the show as a guest to talk about the premiere of “Eleanor.” And he came up with this way to end our show.
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GROSS: (As herself) FRESH AIR’s executive producer is…
(SOUNDBITE OF COMPUTER CRASHING)
GROSS: I don’t know. Danny, are we still on the air?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As Angela Brant) FRESH AIR’s executive producer is me, Megablurg CEO Angela Brant.
GROSS: (As herself) What is this? What’s going on here?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As Angela Brant) Why, we’re stealing your show, Terry Gross.
SCOTT JOHNSTON: (As Professor Ignomi) Now your listeners will hear only Megablurg-approved programming.
GROSS: (As herself) No, you can’t. You won’t get away with this.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As Angela Brant) Professor Ignomi, show Terry Gross your hypnoray.
JOHNSTON: (As Professor Ignomi, laughing) With pleasure, Ms. Brant.
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GROSS: (As herself) FRESH AIR listeners, would you like to hear the latest deals on internet shopping or maybe some celebrity gossip?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As Angela Brant, laughing) Got you, Terry Gross. That’ll show you for denying my interview request.
CHRISTA D’AGOSTINO: (As Eleanor Amplified) Not so fast, evildoers.
SCOTT JOHNSTON AND UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As characters, gasping) Eleanor Amplified.
D’AGOSTINO: (As Eleanor Amplified) I won’t let you turn FRESH AIR into a Megablurg mouthpiece. It’s a good thing I brought this anti-hypnoray.
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JOHNSTON: (As Professor Ignomi) No.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As Angela Brant) Curse you, Eleanor Amplified. You’ve spoiled my plans again.
GROSS: (As herself) Eleanor, where am I? I don’t think I can finish the show. I don’t think I can even remember the names of our producers.
D’AGOSTINO: (As Eleanor Amplified) Don’t worry, Terry Gross, I’ve got this. FRESH AIR’S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Audrey Bentham. The interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. Molly Seavy-Nesper is associate producer of online media. Roberta Shorrock directs the show.
GROSS: (As herself) Thanks, Eleanor.
D’AGOSTINO: (As Eleanor Amplified) Sure thing, Terry Gross.
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GROSS: I’m back to add Mooj Zadie’s name to the credits. He wasn’t yet here when we recorded that. And to thank you, John, for sharing nine years of your life with FRESH AIR. See you in the hall. I’m Terry Gross.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.