In July 2008, a California State University (CSU) consortium became the first academic organization to accept a “challenge project” from the NSA’s Institute for Analysis (IFA). A challenge project consists of a question for which the IFA seeks a fresh answer from outside the Intelligence Community (IC). The challenge process begins with individual NSA analysts who approach the IFA with particularly vexing questions. IFA then evaluates these for their importance, timeliness, and suitability to outside research. Once the IFA approves a question for a challenge project, the question is reframed to make it suitable for open-source research by whatever group is assigned the project.
Challenge projects vary in complexity. Some involve a direct, one-time answer to a highly specialized question. Others, however, are more extensive and require the group taking the challenge not only to answer the question but also to provide a reproducible methodology. Customarily, these challenges are contracted out to private firms. However, the IFA recently opened the process to universities identified by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) as “Intelligence Community Centers of Academic Excellence” (IC CAE).1 The CSU consortium is one of these centers and accepted the first such challenge offered to a university group.