FORT MEADE, MD – Bobby Ray Inman waged World War three against the United States, and won. The budding spy master’s legend began during a wargaming exercise at the Naval War College, where CIA officials and illustrious members of the American military establishment were bested by a young Bobby Ray and fellow red team players, who were representing the Soviet threat.
Described as the “shadowy genius of the CIA” by Robert Sam Anson, who related the details of the story above in a 1982 article for Omni Magazine, Inman’s relationship to Langley was ephemeral and contentious. Appointed as Deputy Director to the agency by Ronald Reagan in 1981, he had put his plans to retire from the public sector on hold to take the job. But, the professional rivalries he had developed over his long career in military intelligence and Director William Casey’s low opinion of the man’s character led to an early exit just a year later.
The “brittle golden boy”, as Casey referred to Inman, had nonetheless built a sterling reputation within the Naval intelligence circles he had emerged from, and as one of the most influential directors of the National Security Agency, which he led from 1977 to 1981.
Admiral Inman’s tenure at the NSA was marked by his ability to cultivate strong political relationships on Capitol Hill through the unprecedented sharing of classified information, earning him the moniker of the “leaker-in-chief“. He adopted a similar strategy with the press, successfully stemming the tide of bad publicity elicited by the recently-concluded Church and Pike Committees, by ingratiating himself with editors and reporters.
A master manipulator, Inman never revealed too much. Within the agency, he broke the mold of the honorary figurehead most NSA chiefs had assumed over the course of its relatively short history, and took a hands-on approach to repair the internal damage caused by the Senate and House investigations, without interrupting ongoing covert – and in some cases, illegal –, operations undertaken by the codebreaking agency, some of which he was personally involved with.
Rumors of Inman’s homosexuality, and an arms trading scandal would prevent a full return to the public sector spotlight years later, when president Clinton nominated him for Secretary of Defense in the early 90s, although he did make a brief reappearance as Acting chair of George W. H. Bush’s Intelligence Advisory Board between 1991 and 1993.
Ten years before the abortive selection to the top post of the Defense Department, Inman stepped down from his short stint at the CIA to enter the private sector, where a three-decade long journey through the dark and sinewy corridors of the American intelligence community in the midst of the Cold War, would inform his next mission to establish a shadow technology research and development hub for the national security state in Austin, Texas.
MCC and the First AI Race
Hailing from a backwater town in East Texas, lodged between Dallas and the state’s borders with Louisiana and Arkansas, Bobby Ray Inman navigated his way through the bullies at school by trading in information, – doing the tough kids’ homework. It was a dynamic that would lead him into a profession where access to privileged knowledge meant power and define his entire career.
Graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 1950, Inman would return to the sleepy college town for good in 1983, when he assumed the presidency, chairmanship and role of chief executive officer for the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC), a consortium of the nation’s leading technology manufacturing and development firms at the time, ostensibly formed to curtail Japan’s bid to dominate the sector.
Advances by Japanese computer scientists during the late 1970s led the country’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) to announce a “fifth generation” computer system research project in 1982, that was slated to unfold over the following decade, presenting some problems for the West’s, namely Atlanticist, plans for the future of computing.
On the eve of ARPANET’s historic breakthrough, NATO gathered the top software engineers and computer scientists from the within the alliance for conferences on software engineering. The purpose of these early symposiums was to plot the course of computer technology in a post-war world dominated by NATO, making sure all the verticals were kept within their purview.
Among the most salient conclusions drawn in the first of these conferences, which took place in Garmisch, Germany in 1968, was the need for interoperability. While not expressed in these terms, it is clear from the final report, that “achieving sufficient reliability in the data systems which are becoming increasingly integrated into the central activities of modern society” was of paramount importance. These concerns would drive the eventual shift into the hierarchy-based programming paradigm, that is prevalent in today’s globalized digital marketplace and industry-grade artificial intelligence applications.
Japan was building their fifth generation artificial intelligence machines using logic programming, which although equally effective in performing advanced computer tasks, failed to provide a framework in which the underlying software could overcome differences in hardware specifications for commercial purposes, as well as critical backdoor access for cryptographic intelligence agencies, like the NSA.
IBM had already established a presence in Austin when it opened a manufacturing plant there in 1965 to much fanfare, and the oil industry had led the city’s initial forays into technological research and development, which was not insignificant by the time MCC picked the Texas capital to be its headquarters after a controversial competition between 57 cities across the country.
Important research for industrial applications of artificial intelligence had been taking place just blocks from the state capitol building since the 1960s in the laboratories of a French oil prospecting company, that had been incorporated in Austin since the 1920s, pioneering the world’s first “smart city” technology – digital parking meters.
Other major players with early Austin ties include the Burroughs Corporation, which developed a magnetic ink character recognition (MICR) technology for the Federal Reserve’s bank cheque processing system, and opened the Burroughs Austin Research Center (BARC) in the 1970s. Burroughs would later merge with Sperry UNIVAC to form Unisys.
Tracor, a homegrown R&D company founded in 1954 by a UT Austin graduate, became a major defense contractor, producing sensor instruments and other electronic components for companies like Union Carbide and military-grade countermeasure devices for the U.S. Navy. In 1981, it opened a subsidiary in Israel called Rokar International just a few years before Tracor was acquired by Westmark Systems – a venture run by none other than Bobby Ray Inman and NSA colleagues, featuring one Donald Rumsfeld on its board of directors.
After Westmark declared bankruptcy in 1989, Tracor and its subsidiaries were absorbed by the Carlyle Group, later passing through several other concerns, such as BAE Systems and General Dynamics. BAE Systems Rokar, the eventual landing place of Tracor’s Israeli subsidiary was recently acquired by Elbit Systems, which operates an AI-based border security system for the Department of Homeland Security.
To this burgeoning landscape of defense technology interests, MCC brought to Austin the likes of National Cash Register (NCR), Control Data Corporation, Lockheed, Honeywell, National Semiconductor, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), and Motorola, to name just a few of the original fifteen members, which would later balloon to 21. Many of these firms either expanded their existing operations or relocated their headquarters to the greater Austin area.
Big Men on Campus
The University of Texas at Austin followed suit. As part of the package deal offered up by the city council in the “competition”, UT Austin announced the creation of 32 $1-million-dollar chair endowments, that it would fill with top academics and a few Nobel laurates to raise the profile of the university and compete with institutions like Stanford and MIT. Among the first hires was a man who was considered to be the world’s foremost software engineer and a pioneer in distributed systems programming and algorithm design.
Edsger W. Dijkstra, one of the handful of mathematical engineers who presided over NATO’s aforementioned conferences was recruited to head the university’s computer science department. Soon after his arrival, the Office of Naval Research gave his department a University Research Initiative (URI) grant to explore “research directions for [the] Formulation and Programming of Parallel and Distributed Computation”.
Over the following year, Dijkstra and his colleagues organized a series of lectures and seminars in Austin, bringing some of the most illustrious names in computer science and mathematics to the city. Dozens of the most esteemed academics in these fields from leading Western institutions, like Cambridge, Oxford, and Dijkstra’s own alma mater, Eindhoven in The Netherlands, as well as American homologues from Stanford, MIT and Carnegie-Mellon, gathered in the Texas capital to hash out the state of distributed programming methodologies, and lay the groundwork for UT Austin’s present-day leadership in peer-to-peer networks and blockchain technologies.
Overseeing the so-called “Year of Programming” (YoP) of 1987, were representatives of MCC and Lockheed, while SEMATECH, a new consortium incorporated the year before in New York comprised of America’s top semiconductor manufacturers, decided to make Austin the site for their new factories, subsidized by DARPA to the tune of $500 million over the first three years.
Admiral Bobby Ray Inman had resigned from MCC’s leadership by then, having passed the baton off to a Texas Instruments executive, and allowing him to attend to business at Westmark Systems and other going concerns. But, history would step in to put the kibosh on the best laid plans of Inman and his buddies.
Trauma Bonded Cold Warriors
The warning signs had been clear, and few people had been in a better position to see them, than Bobby Ray Inman. In 1985, the fall of the Berlin Wall sent shivers down the spine of the Military Industrial Complex, which sensed that the status quo was on the verge of crumbling with it.
Defense contracts had underpinned the American economy since Churchill dropped the Iron Curtain to divide East and West in 1946, and the UKUSA agreement was signed by the “5-eye” nations. The Cold War had built institutions like the NSA, the CIA and all the other alphabet agencies, along with the careers and professions of the men and women who roamed their halls. Not to mention the massive industries spawned by the war machine, at the core of which were the very ones accumulating in Austin through MCC.
Everything unraveled in 1989, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War was no more. The gargantuan military security apparatus operated by Western powers became irrelevant from one day to the next. Disastrously for Inman, the covert weapons and military equipment smuggling operation he had been running since his days at the NSA was in danger of being exposed after the front company created to execute the black op found itself in the land of plausible deniability in the middle of its acquisition by a British multinational.
International Signal & Control Corporation of Lancaster, Pennsylvania (ISC) started out as Electronic Systems International (ESI), manufacturing missile sub-assemblies and Ham radios. In 1974, the company’s founder, James Guerin, established a relationship with the NSA, which helped him set up ISC as a front company to circumvent U.S. embargo policies in locations where the agency needed to place equipment.
Sanctioned by Admiral Inman, ISC created 48 subsidiary firms and over 60 bank accounts world-wide to carry out the operation. One of these firms, Gamma Systems Associates, would receive electronic sensor equipment produced by ISC, repackaged it, and ship them via commercial airliners with false customs information to South Africa, where the NSA was using them to monitor Soviet submarine activity off the Cape of Good Hope.
The full extent of the operation was never revealed, but the acquisition of ISC by UK-based electrical engineering company Ferranti International, in 1987, provided some clues. Guerin had placed the valuation of his company in the billions of dollars, asserting the existence of multiple weapons and equipment manufacturing contracts all over the world. As the deal was closing, so was the Soviet Union and the NSA’s need to keep the operation running.
Ferranti accused Guerin of defrauding them after the web of shell companies were discovered and not a single weapons manufacturing contract remained. Guerin was prosecuted and sentenced to 15 years in prison for the largest fraud in Lancaster County’s history, and despite his appeals to his spook friends, the NSA denied any involvement. Perhaps in an effort to maintain his pristine public image, Inman only offered a letter addressed to the judge attesting to Guerin’s patriotism.
At 90 years of age, Bobby Ray Inman, still lives in Austin. In 2001, he was appointed a tenured professor at UT Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, serving as interim dean in 2005, and for a second time in 2009-2010.
Despite the setbacks for the defense-linked tech sector resulting from the premature end of the Cold War, Austin’s place at the nexus of technology and the national security state has not fallen by the wayside. A new Cold War is in the making, and driven by the same interests that waged the first one.
Instead of Japan’s fifth generation computers, we now have the idea of countering China’s “AI supremacy” to move the narrative forward, with the added component of the Chinese “social credit score” system. Meanwhile, UT Austin is at the cutting edge of cybernetic social management systems.
Right inside the LBJ School of Public Affairs, a multi-disciplinary research project called Bridging Barriers is studying the merger of society and technology through various “moonshot challenges”, which include a plethora of AI-driven social management tools and concepts, like “AI-Enabled Model Integration”, which seeks to develop artificial intelligence models for everything from “weather and climate to disease transmission”, or “AI and the Future of Racial Justice“, which explores models for impact investing.
Admiral Inman has been teaching a policy development course at UT Austin since 2013. The 2021 course is titled “crisis management”. Given Inman’s background, the course description is enlightening:
“What do 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the financial crisis of 2008 have in common? They were all unexpected crisis events that challenged the nation and the national policymaking apparatus. […] The course uses a crisis case study approach to examine policy development in the areas of global trade and finance, humanitarian and environmental policy, asymmetric threats, and national security.”