To an engineer in Silicon Valley, the Defense Department can look a little old, a little slow, and a little fat. To the Defense Department, the smug confidence of young engineers doesnt go unnoticed. Is it really better to work on an app for ordering sandwiches than it is to build submarines that can launch nuclear weapons?
Two years ago, Barack Obama appointed a new Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter—a technocrat physicist, an arms control veteran, and a professor at Stanford—to help close this divide. During his tenure, Carter set up a virtual outpost in Silicon Valley. He worked to make it easier for tech companies to sell things to the Pentagon, for their engineers to work there, and for their bosses to offer up advice. He even let WIRED tag along and write a profile of him. He also impressed the local royalty. Hes been amazing, Ben Horowitz, the co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, told me in an interview.
This week, Carter, who left office along with Obama, agreed to chat with WIRED about his tenure, the challenges facing his successor, and a White House that isnt entirely beloved by technocrats.
Nicholas Thompson: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.
Ashton Carter: Sure. Its good to be back with WIRED.
You put a lot of effort during your tenure into building bridges between Silicon Valley and the Pentagon. How well will they survive your departure?
I think the logic behind them is so compelling both for the defense mission and in a different way for the innovative people in the Valley and other technology hubs that this gives me confidence that it will continue. The Defense Department has to adapt and be flexible and be user-friendly for people who have their own particular style of working and who have, quite honestly, some reservations about whether working with the government is a good thing to do.
I remember you telling a story about going to Andreessen Horowitz and being asked whether someone who smoked pot could get a security clearance.
Yes. We need to be realistic. Some behaviors that in past times might have been predictive of instability or espionage or a propensity to be blackmailed are simply not in that category anymore.
Theres always been tension between Silicon Valley and the Pentagon. But now theres a new sense here that employees at tech companies generally hold values that are different from the values held dear by the occupants of our current White House. What is your advice to them as they think about working with the Pentagon?
Stay the course. Stick with the values and the idealism that makes the innovative community so important to Defense. That will be widely recognized by professionals in the Department of Defense.
I think that my successor [Gen. James Mattis] spent a little time living in the Valley and therefore has the opportunity to relate. Thats a good thing. But, more fundamentally, I think that people in the tech community are animated by making a difference in the world and they know that, whoever is President of the United States, security is a very important thing. They can make a difference there, and the governments job is to create bridges and doorways which allow them to use that great positive spirit of theirs in a way that is also consistent with their values.
So you think well get past this rocky moment?
Its only day 24, so I dont know where that will go. But I do think that it is widely understood that this is a critical relationship to have, and that in order for it to be helpful the government has to be flexible and has to meet technologists halfway. The shocks that weve had—the Snowden issue and other things in the past—these are very real, and they need to be taken into account, but they can be surmounted. Thats why with the Defense Digital Service, for example, we let people give us a try. You can just come in for one project for a time and see whether you like it.
The experience is that the government is better than they thought it would be, and they are very excited by it, and they are able to make a big difference and they find that very satisfying. And they know that the issues are inherently essential to civilized life and to everything they believe, and they are able to make a contribution that’s consistent with their values. Thats pretty exciting.
Despite all the turbulence in our political system, things that have a strong logic behind them tend to prevail in the end.
We talked six months ago and you said: Counter-ISIL is going to be the first big test of Cyber Com. How would you evaluate it now?
This is the first time that we have used cyber as a weapon of war, and while theres no question that there was a learning curve, it has been very effective. One measure of that is that the way in which ISILs leaders have very clearly had to change their way of operating and their methods of command and control. They are not able any longer to have the centralized command and control logistics support of a complicated battlefield like Northern Iraq or Northern Syria, and they are resorting now to the old methods of messengers. They are very paranoid because they cant tell when we have penetrated or blacked them out, or when the local populace has turned against them or when their own fighters are disloyal, and that creates a lot of paranoia.
It has always been the case in attacking the enemys command and control that there are difficult choices that need to be made between listening to the enemys communications, if you are able to do that, and depriving them of those communications. And so we made that balance, working with the intelligence community, case by case. Sometimes we decided not to strike with cyber weapons because we preferred to listen than to black out. In other cases, we simply blacked them out.
If we are going into a particular place at a particular time to do a raid—grab a leader, kill a leader—we might black out that area at that time. We may do it selected by geography and by time. Its been very effective. But I should emphasize that its only one thing that we are doing across a wide swath of acceleration of the campaign that began a year and a quarter ago. You see us raiding and killing leaders, seizing leaders so that we can learn more about them. Seizing their laptops and cellphones and exploiting them. A lot of people dont realize that there is much, much more to this campaign than airstrikes. And cyber has been part of that.
This is the first time that the United States has used cyber as a weapon of war, and theres no question that we can be very effective with that.
Part of that depends on cooperation between the intelligence agencies and the White House. Reading the news there appears to be increasing tension between the intelligence agencies and the White House. How worried would you be about that?
Its too early to see where that will settle out. Its obviously essential for those waging the war on ISIL to be working closely together. That in my time as Secretary of Defense went extremely well. I always found that I could work with Jim Clapper and Jim Comey and Jonn Brennan.
‘Despite all the turbulence in our political system, things that have a strong logic behind them tend to prevail in the end.’Former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter
Every time we make progress, we found new ways to make it go even faster. So when you capture someone you learn something about the organization that allows you to make more effective airstrikes. When you do effective airstrikes, ISIL fighters begin to relocate, and you are able to get them in the new location.
Success breeds success in a campaign like this, and we should be constantly be looking to turn over new opportunities and accelerate. I certainly hope, and I do expect, that the new team will keep looking within the same basic strategic framework that we had of destroying ISIL in Syria.
Ive heard defense officials say that they think autonomy is going to change warfare as much as nuclear weaponry did. Do you think thats correct?
I think it will change warfare in a fundamental way. Im not sure that anything that is done autonomously will compete with the raw physical destructive power of nuclear weapons. I also think that autonomy is a complicated concept. Lets not forget that when it comes to using force to protect civilization one of our principles ought to be that theres a human being involved in making critical decisions. I think thats an important principle, and as I said, consistent with full exploitation of this potential.
I think it will have a major effect on warfare. But its very hard to compare anything to nuclear weapons because of the simple physical awesome destructive power. Its been 70 years, and nothing has matched it.
I think if there is going to be something ever that rivals nuclear weapons in terms of the pure fearsomeness of their destructiveness its more likely to come from biotechnology than any other technology. Looking back decades from now, I do think the biological revelation could rival the atomic revolution for the fearsomeness of the potential. I think thats one reason we need to invest in it. And although biotechnology has not been a traditional area for Defense, the new bridges that they build shold not only be to the IT tech community but also to the biotech communities in the Valley.
At heart, youre a scientist. What is your advice to all the scientists concerned about the direction this White House is taking the country?
Again, its very early. Its very difficult to discern what the direction is. Id encourage people to keep heart and to remember that weve been around for 241 years and that protecting our people and making a better world is a very noble mission, and that science and technology are essential to its accomplishment, and that they ought to continue to try to advance that but stick to their principles and their values at the same time.
I was Secretary of Defense, and I believed and I still believe that its possible that technologists—and this has been something that I have dedicated my life to—can be true to the principals of science and innovation and also work toward protecting our people and making a better world.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.