CIA and ICT developing anti-terrorism training “game”

The CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC) is working to develop training simulations with the help of the Institute for Creative Technologies, a center within the University of Southern California that specializes in combining artificial intelligence, virtual reality and techniques from the videogame and movie industries to create interactive training simulations. The company recently received accolades for their “Full Spectrum Warrior” project, which was designed as a training aid for the US Army but has also lead to a commercial videogame for the X-Box. The Army project uses material developed with the Army Infantry School at Fort Benning and a rich AI engine to run trainees through both military and peacekeeping scenarios. For example, in one scenario the trainee plays an officer in charge of a unit that has just been involved in a traffic accident between a tank and a non-English-speaking civilian. If approved, the CIA’s simulation would allow analyst trainees to play themselves or the part of terrorist cell leaders, cell members, money-movers and facilitators.

The Washington Times, who broke the story, is highly critical of the project, comparing it to Vice Adm. John Poindexter’s ill-received Idea Futures project and quoting unnamed military officials and other critics who call it “a ridiculous and absurd scheme that makes Poindexter’s project look good in comparison” and suggest that “the key issue here is the CTC misspending funds on silly, low-priority projects, exactly the kind of thing that forced Admiral Poindexter to resign.” A follow-up article, also in the Washington Times, quotes former Georgia congressman Bob Barr (R-GA) as saying “Perhaps this is the reason we were surprised by September 11. If it weren’t so serious, it would be comical… What we ought to be doing is focusing our money and attention in identifying terrorists and their associates so we can be on the watch for these characters, not playing video games.” The Sydney Morning Herald was slightly less critical, but also linked the project with Poindexter’s projects.

It’s entirely possible that this project is too expensive (the CIA has not revealed the price tag) or that the simulation is in some way teaching the wrong lessons. However, the main criticism seems to be of the form “the CIA is wasting time playing video games,” which is patently absurd. Simulation role-playing has been an effective training tool in both the military and business for decades, and in fact much of the technology now seen in video games was originally developed for training U.S. Army officers. To suggest that the CIA should be out catching terrorists instead of playing video games is like suggesting the U.S. Army should be out fighting wars instead of wasting their time doing training exercises consisting of “running around with toy guns playing capture the flag.”

It’s pretty clear that there’s a thicket of political wrangling going on behind the scenes, and the Times story is a salvo fired by people who want this CIA project canceled. I’ve no idea whether this is a case of fighting over scarce funding, vengeance against the CTC, or an honest attempt to scuttle a project that won’t provide good training, and I won’t even begin to speculate. Hopefully someone with a better understanding of the ins and outs of intelligence and military politics (like Phil Carter at Intel Dump) will weigh in on this before long.