The Cable

Can the Defense Department Rekindle Romance With Silicon Valley?

After spending two decades largely ignoring the very Silicon Valley tech start-up culture that it helped bankroll in the 1970s and ’80s, questions remain about a new Defense Department push to reconnect with the California tech world, especially in a post-Snowden era where trust between the two sides has been eroded. Spearheading the new outreach ...

Penny Pritzer Discusses Innovation Economy With LinkedIn CEO
SUNNYVALE, CA - FEBRUARY 24: U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker (R) speaks in conversation with LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner (L) at the Plug and Play Tech Center on February 24, 2014 in Sunnyvale, California. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker is making her first trip as Secretary to Silicon Valley. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

After spending two decades largely ignoring the very Silicon Valley tech start-up culture that it helped bankroll in the 1970s and ’80s, questions remain about a new Defense Department push to reconnect with the California tech world, especially in a post-Snowden era where trust between the two sides has been eroded.

Spearheading the new outreach initiative is Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, who after announcing a new cyber and technology strategy Thursday afternoon at Stanford, plans to hold a series of meetings with tech-related venture capital heads, Facebook execs, and owners of small companies to try and smooth the path for greater collaboration between the military and private industry.

The hoped-for partnership with Silicon Valley startups could be “hugely important” said P.W. Singer, senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of the recent Cybersecurity and Cyberwar.

While no defense secretary has visited the tech-generating region since the invention of cell phones and the spread of the Internet, Singer warned that “you can’t reset relations rapidly, all the more so in a post-Snowden world. My sense is that we’ll make some headway … but don’t expect a sea change any time soon.”

The Pentagon obviously has much to gain from any potential partnership, but it’s not clear if Silicon Valley feels the same. The famously rigid, careful, and bureaucrat-heavy acquisition culture in Washington doesn’t have much in common with the fast-paced idea incubator culture in California. And the difference between the two would likely also scare away some companies who are used to moving fast and staying independent, said Ben FitzGerald, director of the Center for a New American Security’s Technology and National Security Program.

Ironically, it was defense dollars in the ’70s and ’80s that funded some of the technological innovations that today the department is so eager to plug into. But those software firms and their grandchildren have since grown up to cater to a massive and fast-moving global marketplace that “dwarfs the Pentagon’s previously compelling budget,” FitzGerald said.

Overall, this combination of “macroeconomic, market, and cultural misalignment has proven difficult to for the Pentagon to overcome,” he said.

While defense leaders are eager to get into business with Silicon Valley, the Pentagon is hardly the only big government agency looking to make new friends in the region.

In an April 22 speech in San Francisco, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said his department is also setting up a base of operations in the San Francisco Bay area. The idea is much the same as Carter’s, to build relationships in Silicon Valley and ensure that the government and the private sector take advantage of each other’s research and development spending.

Speaking to a San Francisco tech conference, Johnson added that he wants to “convince some of the talented workforce here in Silicon Valley to come to Washington.”

Johnson also pushed back on the tech industry’s demand for greater encryption, saying that it hinders the government’s ability to detect criminal activity. The trend toward deeper encryption is an issue that “presents real challenges to those in law enforcement and national security,” Johnson said. “We need your help to find the solution.”

(Getty Images)

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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