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How IARPA Works

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IARPA Infrastructure
Before being named director of IARPA, Lisa Porter worked for NASA.
Before being named director of IARPA, Lisa Porter worked for NASA.

The concept behind IARPA is to recapture the element of surprise in intelligence gathering [source: Lawlor]. The accessibility of the Internet and computers has opened up new communication channels for enemies, and the ever-increasing amount of information exchanged online has made culling through data a gargantuan task. Also, since the 16 agencies of the intelligence community must focus on their own day-to-day issues, IARPA plans to do the heavy lifting in terms of finding breakthroughs that will benefit them all. To understand how it will do this, we must first look at IARPA's ideological predecessor.

As its acronym implies, IARPA has a lot in common with DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Activity. After the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, which served as the sounding gun of the space race, the United States responded by forming DARPA to help it catch up. This relatively small organization with a $3 billion annual operating budget now sponsors external research and development projects that can potentially yield dramatic results [source: DARPA]. Its commonly cited successes include the Internet and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) [source: Weinberger].

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence designed IARPA to follow a template similar to DARPA. Although the size of IARPA's slice of the $43 billion intelligence pie remains classified, it will outsource "high-risk, high-yield" research to public and private groups, including universities, companies and national laboratories. That means its home base at the University of Maryland won't be overrun with scientists and technicians fiddling with quantum computers [source: Lawlor]. Instead, it will scatter projects among different locations.

Overseeing those projects will be the recently named director, Lisa Porter, who came from NASA. Porter has a staff of 56 supporting her -- 35 of whom come from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and 21 from the CIA [source: Fein].

IARPA-sponsored ventures will fall into one of three program buckets, which are: smart collection, incisive analysis, and safe and secure operations. As you can see, each relates to information gathering, processing and protecting. Individual projects will generally last three to five years, with new ones continually circulating in.

At the end of the day, IARPA doesn't have an operational mission to fulfill. Its work is meant to reach beyond stated goals to solve future problems today [source: IARPA]. On the next page, we'll learn what exactly this means within the different IARPA divisions.