Defense Cuts Force Contractors to Look to Sell Spy Tech to Cops, Others

Facing U.S. budget cuts, the industry that makes drones, radar equipment, and sensors for use in Iraq and Afghanistan is looking to sell them at home to police, border patrol, and others. Plus, Michael O'Hanlon on the case for a leaner military.

Ann Heisenfelt / AP Photos (left); Alex Brandon / AP Photos

It’s known as IBISS, the acronym for the Integrated Building Interior Surveillance System. Like its name suggests, it can see through the walls of buildings and sketch out images of what’s inside.

Until this year, IBISS was a classified system, a piece of high-tech wizardry the military used to fight the war on terrorism. The contractor that made the system, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), couldn’t talk about it in public, but that’s changing. IBISS is one of the new products SAIC is hoping to sell to local police stations and fire departments as the defense contractor explores what is known in the industry as “adjacent markets.”

Adjacent markets can mean anything from foreign militaries to the Department of Homeland Security for the industry that makes the computer systems, software, remote sensors, radar and ground stations that comprise Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) for the military.

For the first decade of the war on terrorism, the ISR industry thrived, and companies like SAIC, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin made big profits. Those days are coming to an end though.

On Monday at the annual industry trade conference known as GEOINT, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, broke the news to the assembled contractors: “We are all going to have to share in the pain.” Clapper said, as his office submitted billions of dollars in cuts to the Office of Management and Budget over the next 10 years. The overall annual intelligence budget is about $80 billion annually; most of the details of those budgets however are secret.

Gulu Gambhir, the chief technology officer for the ISR group of SAIC, said he has seen this day coming.

“At SAIC it is certainly no surprise to us that there are pressures on the budget within our key customer space, and we’ve been preparing for these pressures and a potential downturn in certain parts of our ISR market for some time now,” Gambhir told The Daily Beast on Monday.

He added, “A number of our influential products have dual-use capability to locations and missions adjacent to our primary overseas ISR mission. One such example is local law enforcement, emergency first responders and border protection.”

Brad Antle, the president and CEO of Salient Federal Solutions and a former vice president of Lockheed Martin, said, “I think it’s logical to assume your adjacent markets for ISR capability, assuming the federal government won’t let you sell it overseas—and it’s pretty sensitive, so I can’t imagine you are going to get much of that approved for foreign sales—they are going to try to push it down to the state and local governments to see if there is a mission to support.”

Antle said he didn’t think the states and cities had the budget for much of the technology developed for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Maybe some limited cities and states; a city like New York might have some budget to support that, but I can’t see broadly how the customers are going to support customers in ISR.”

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, said he has seen this trend for a while of military technology developed for uses overseas finding their way to local law enforcement.

“In some ways this is the entire trend we’ve been seeing since 9/11. All kinds of capabilities that were developed with an eye to foreign countries are being turned inward upon the American people,” Stanley said. “We’ve seen this with everything from the NSA to spy satellites even to a lot of the technologies that are moving through what is called the green to blue pipeline, which is to say the military to the police.”

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Gambhir said an example of how his company was marketing this new kind of technology was IBISS, a system that uses “through-the-wall radar technology” similar to cell-phone signals. “It allows you to see into the interior of a building to construct a 3-D model of the walls of the building and even see under circumstances people within the building,” he said.

Stanley, who is the co-author of a forthcoming study on the deployment of surveillance drones to U.S. cities, said local police would have to be very careful with this kind of technology. “Police need to be careful with IBISS because the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to use a thermal imaging technology to peer into someone’s home without a warrant.”

Others in the industry agreed that the ISR industry was looking to local and state governments. Jason O’Connor, a vice president for engineering at Lockheed Martin’s Information Systems & Global Solutions, said his company’s products that specialize in searching through seas of random data ranging from recorded video to field reports also can be sold to emergency first responders, border-protection agencies, and police departments.

“We’ve been successful with our traditional customers in the age of near-endless information availability,” O’Connor said. “We find adjacencies like emergency response, border protection, security, to need those same types of services and products.”

Mark Bigham, a vice president at Raytheon’s Intelligence and Information Systems, said his company, which builds ground stations for satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles, believed it could help companies such as Federal Express develop cargo planes that would not need pilots in the future. He also said his company had proposed a way to reduce 10 percent of the costs of a $1 billion satellite ground-station contract Raytheon won last year.