John Pike: An Intelligence Sleuth in His Own Right
By Vernon Loeb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 25, 2000
Shortly after a congressional commission recommended greater secrecy at the National Reconnaissance Office last month, one defense official attributed the move to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).
He was speaking in code for those who follow the intelligence community. Here is a rough translation for those who don't: John Pike has driven the NRO nuts.
As the FAS's director of space policy, Pike has long been the man television producers and newspaper reporters called whenever NASA stumbles, or an Air Force rocket crashes carrying an NRO satellite, or the latest missile defense test doesn't work exactly the way it is supposed to.
Asked by a Space Business News reporter two years ago what impact the crash of a Titan rocket carrying a government spy satellite would have on the NRO, Pike replied: "Not much - the NRO has more satellites up there than they know what to do with."
But Pike's most annoying accomplishment, as far as the NRO and the rest of the intelligence community are concerned, has been building the deepest and most useful intelligence site on the Web (http://www.fas.org/irp/index.html).
In Pike's cyber-universe, visitors can find source documents on intelligence capabilities, commentary on intelligence and defense reform, even overhead imagery of the NRO's palatial headquarters in Chantilly, Va., which Pike ingeniously obtained from the Fairfax County planning commission before most of the world even knew the NRO existed.
Indeed, the site is a monument to Pike's quirky intellect which will long outlive his tenure at the federation - a tenure that ended, sadly enough, earlier this fall after 18 years.
But before anyone starts popping champagne corks out in Chantilly, be warned. It could get worse.
Far from retiring, Pike has now hung out his own shingle on the Web at http://www.globalsecurity.org/, a site dedicated to all the many things Pike is interested in, from nuclear nonproliferation, to national missile defense, to satellite imagery, to intelligence reform.
"He has set the standard for what an individual can do in political life based on their own creativity," said Steven Aftergood, a friend and now former colleague who directs the FAS's project on government secrecy.
"I think he was the preeminent individual critic of the Strategic Defense Initiative during the 1980s," Aftergood said. "More recently, he has pioneered the public interest exploitation of satellite imagery. And he was the primary architect of the FAS Web site, which without boasting is a unique resource in national security policy matters."
Jeremy Stone, who retired six months ago after 30 years as FAS president, said he "struggled" to maintain funding support for Pike's work. But Pike was always worth the effort, Stone said.
"He worked around the clock, to the point of exhaustion, and with tremendous creativity, ingenuity and selflessness in sharing his work," Stone said.
Stone, a PhD mathematician from Stanford, acknowledged that his star staff member attended Vanderbilt but never got a degree. "I view him as the Edwin Land of our community - Land never graduated from Harvard. He was a great genius, and he didn't have time for college," Stone said. "John didn't have time for anything that didn't interest him. As opposed to working on lost causes, John works on things that are ripe for media attention - and he's been far more successful at managing the media than any scientist at FAS."
Added Bill Arkin, a defense analyst, washingtonpost.com columnist and former FAS consultant: "He is the perfect Internet defense analyst, because if you want to talk about anything fleeting, audacious, anarchic, that's John Pike."
But one defense analyst familiar with Pike's work, who asked not to be quoted by name, said that Pike's passionate curiosity is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness.
Pike is not particularly disciplined or methodical in his work, the analyst said. And the FAS Web site, a perfect reflection of Pike's quirky mind, is far from comprehensive.
"If it were an encyclopedia, it would be non-publishable," the analyst said, adding that he has no trouble understanding why FAS funders found Pike's "defense policy anarchy unpalatable."
One senior U.S. intelligence official was no less critical. "In his mad rush to release any morsel of information that he acquires about the intelligence community, he sometimes loses sight of the possible consequences," the official said.
For his own part, Pike, a 47-year-old New Orleans native with a rich southern accent, said that he doesn't deal in classified information and is thus free to publish whatever he learns.
"The stuff that I find out is findable - and basically findable with fairly rudimentary methods that would be familiar to any journalist or any intelligence officer," Pike said. "I have methods, but I don't have any sources - I don't have people telling me this stuff. I have to find stuff out."
He makes it all sound fairly routine. But with Pike, exploiting open sources is often a matter of true genius. Earlier this year, for instance, Pike concluded that Taiwan had been purchasing large quantities of high-resolution commercial satellite imagery of southern China from Space Imaging Inc.
Since Space Imagining offers all imagery commissioned by its customers for resale to other customers via its Web site, Pike was able to comb through the catalogued imagery to see what had been purchased.
While he didn't know who the original customers were - Space Imaging keeps those identities confidential - he figured that only Taiwan would be interested in purchasing repeat imagery of numerous Chinese airbases. And Taiwan's de facto embassy in Washington did not deny Pike's supposition.
Pike then analyzed the satellite photos and concluded that Chinese airbases within striking distance of Taiwan did not have the capacity to support a sustained air assault. Pike was, at that point, venturing into territory that had for years been the intelligence community's exclusive terrain.
But what makes Pike most interesting as an intelligence analyst is the fact that he is an iconoclast, not an ideologue. Although he is considered by most a liberal, he is far from a reflexive CIA hater or intelligence basher.
"I don't know that I would view myself as being left of center because I've found myself in strange company on many issues," Pike said, noting that he criticized the Clinton administration during the Desert Fox bombing of Iraq - for ending the campaign too soon.
Part of Pike's strength as an intelligence analyst stems from his own skill as a sleuth and his obvious appreciation of the art of intelligence gathering. He often expresses something close to awe - not scorn - at the capabilities of the NRO and the National Security Agency.
"Intelligence is our first line of defense," Pike said. "Our intelligence agencies contribute more to our national security than any other part of the national security community. Intelligence is basically the way the government figures out what is going on. Intelligence gives you the ability to solve problems while they are still manageable."
Pike's new Web site, in a mission statement, spells out where Pike is coming from and what he's trying to accomplish:
"We are working to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons and the risk of their use - both by existing nuclear weapons states as well as by other states seeking to acquire such capabilities - leading to the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons.
"We are working to restructure American conventional military forces from obsolete Cold War practices, towards new capabilities aligned with the post-Cold War security environment. We seek to improve the capabilities of the American intelligence community, reducing the need to resort to the use of force, while enhancing the effectiveness of military forces when needed.
"GlobalSecurity.org is also committed to articulating a vision for the use of space technology to enhance international peace and security."
Aftergood said Pike, more than anything else, believes in free and open debate.
"If there's an ideology - it would be access to information and freedom to express an opinion," Aftergood said. "He has taken freedom of expression far beyond most other people - and far beyond what the government would like."
© 2000 The Washington Post Company