Pentagon seeks to shed 'dreary' image to attract Silicon Valley talent

Pentagon seeks to shed 'dreary' image to attract Silicon Valley talent
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, left, at a ceremony in Seoul earlier this month. Carter is visiting Northern California on Thursday and Friday. (Kim Hee-Chul / EPA)

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter sought Thursday to begin repairing the Pentagon's relationship with the technology industry, reminding Silicon Valley about the fruits of innovation that came from closely working with the government.

In a speech at Stanford University, Carter announced a number of new initiatives to give the military better access to ideas and leaders in robotics, 3-D printing, bio-medicine, data analysis and other emerging fields.


Carter listed numerous technologies already born from government-funded research, including Google's search engine, Apple's Siri assistant and GPS. But he warned that the Edward Snowden revelations about government surveillance, battles over the encryption of user data held by tech companies and other controversies have caused the government and technologists to look at each other "warily."

"Through successes and strains, our ties have broadly endured, but I believe we must renew the bonds of trust and rebuild the bridge between the Pentagon and Silicon Valley," Carter said during the first visit by a Pentagon chief to Silicon Valley in about 20 years.

The new strategy includes opening the Defense Department's first full-time office in the region. Staffed by what a senior department official called an "elite cadre of active-duty and civilian personnel," Defense Innovation Unit X will be on the hunt for both technology and talent. The unit is expected to get to work as early as next month, initially operating from Moffett Field near Mountain View.

"They will strengthen existing relationships and build new ones, help scout for breakthrough and emerging technologies and function as a local interface node for the rest of the department," said Carter, who received a doctorate in theoretical physics from the University of Oxford.

Defense officials also will take a page from the CIA's playbook and experiment with investing small sums into start-ups. The Defense Department will make the investments in nanoelectronics, software and robotics through In-Q-Tel, the CIA's nonprofit venture capital arm. The overall fund amount hasn't been determined.

The local presence should create a link between tiny start-ups in California and the behemoth that is Washington, D.C., according to Venky Ganesan, managing director of the venture capital firm Menlo Ventures. That's a good first step, he said, that must be quickly followed by defining clear boundaries over how the government will use information provided by tech companies.

"The security of our country is bigger than any of our egos," Ganesan said. "All the parties need to grow up or mature, but in the end good fences make good neighbors."

Underlying the new efforts will be a push to recruit more science and technology experts at a time when they're low in supply and high in demand.

Carter noted that championing the mission of national security to newly minted college graduates whose "memories of Sept. 11 are faded, dim or nonexistent" is challenge. The only way to reel them in is making working for the government no longer a career-long move, but just one stop on a long journey between many different jobs.

"Kids don't want to get into something they are in for their entire lives," he said during a question-and-answer session after his speech. "We can't have industrial-age human resources thinking in an age when they want choice, flexibility. The mission is compelling but we have to make the environment less dreary."

Perhaps as an early start, Stanford gifted a crimson-colored hooded sweatshirt to Carter so the suit-wearing official could better fit in an industry that prefers jeans and T-shirts. He was scheduled to visit Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park on Thursday afternoon and attend a breakfast organized by venture-capital giant Andreessen Horowitz on Friday.

Getting a skeptical industry to play ball won't be easy. Start-ups can sell their wares across the world much more easily than 20 years ago, meaning the argument that home-grown companies should do something in the name of "national security" doesn't go as far.  But former Defense Secretary and CIA Chief Leon Panetta said Carter and his team must still make that pitch.

"If there's a working relationship between the government and the private sector, then the issue of protecting our own security while developing new markets can be a part of the discussion," Panetta said in an interview. "That's why it makes sense to open these lines of communication."

Companies that he interacted with through In-Q-Tel definitely felt that they were serving important security goals, Panetta said.


"I think that the basis for that was that there was a mutual sense that to be able to develop the kind of capabilities that we needed to be able to be on the cutting-edge, that there was no way the government would be able to do it on its own," Panetta said.

Carter also pledged Thursday to be more open in discussing the Pentagon's cybersecurity strategy. His initial move came during the speech, revealing details of a newly unclassified cyberattack by Russian hackers into one of the department's computer systems. They had exploited an unpatched vulnerability but were quickly ferreted out.

"Shining a bright light on such intrusions can eventually benefit us all — governments and businesses alike — by spurring us to better work together," Carter said.

He sent a message to adversaries too. Though deterrence and defense guide U.S. cybersecurity policy, he said that doesn't diminish the willingness to use other options when necessary.

"When we do take action — defensive or otherwise, conventionally or in cyberspace — we operate under rules of engagement that comply with domestic and international law," Carter said.

Carter told the Stanford audience that even if he succeeds in strengthening ties with the tech sector, new tensions are likely to arise. But that's OK, he argued.

"Because being able to address tensions through our partnership is much better than not speaking to each other at all," he said. "And there can even be great ideas that come out of candid conversations.

Chat with me on Twitter @peard33