Remembering Paul Kozemchak

It’s a sad, sad thing to lose a friend. To lose a good friend still in the prime of his life is tragic. Compounding it all, to lose a friend who has quietly been one of our nation’s most valuable national-security minds is just heartbreaking, on many, many levels.

That’s how I feel now that Paul Kozemchak, longtime senior leader at DARPA and one hell of a guy, has passed away.

The Washington Post ran a too-short obituary this week; I encourage you to read the full online tribute to Paul posted by his family, reflecting both his loving personality and his career’s breadth in service to the nation. I see from LinkedIn that one of his old endorsers there had simply written: “Paul knows more about the intelligence community that anyone else I know.” I could say the same thing, and I want to record a few personal thoughts and anecdotes.

Several months ago I began spending time advising a small DoD element, the Strategic Capabilities Office. I was excited about the work, in large part because of what SCO does, but also because it meant I’d be spending a lot of time at DARPA headquarters just outside Washington DC, where SCO has offices. If you like me grew up idolizing the future-inventing wizards of DARPA, you can imagine the thrill I had getting a DARPA badge, and logging in with a personal account on the actual ARPANET.

But that was only partly why I was stoked – it was mostly because I’d be able to see Paul Kozemchak frequently, or “PK” as everyone knew him. Paul has been working at DARPA for over a quarter of a century. I first met him over a decade ago while I was at DIA, and he was the well-established special advisor to the DARPA Director, and its liaison to the intelligence community. When I joined Microsoft’s Advanced Strategy and Research group in December 2007, I was delighted to invite senior government technologists to Redmond, for peek-behind-the-curtain visits to MSR labs and information-sharing on jointly-relevant research. Paul was the first person I invited, and that trip back to Redmond in the spring of 2008 was a blast. I got to know him better as a brilliantly incisive analyst, a laugh-a-minute wit, a bon vivant, an all-too-correct conspiracy theorist on world events, and most of all as a friend.

So, in September 2017 I drove to DARPA headquarters, to work in SCO’s offices on day one, and on the street outside as I searched for the parking entrance, whom did I see striding ebulliently along the sidewalk but PK. I pulled over, rolled my window down and hollered “Paul!” He hadn’t known I was coming, and was delighted. Thus began a weeks-long series of short snatches of conversation in the hallway or the lobby, each time PK saying “We’ve got to get together in the SCIF, big stuff.” We made tentative plans, canceled, remade, shifted…

Those short moments were all I was going to have. Paul was struck by a car as he was crossing that same street outside DARPA headquarters, on November 10. In the hospital, his family was with him a week later when he passed away. The memorial service is tomorrow.

I mentioned PK on this blog way back in 2008 (right). PKIn the ten years since there’ve been dinners, lunches, a million emails urbane or profane, late-night phone calls, several more trips together to the west coast, drinks on Capitol Hill… Others had the same experience, knew him longer or better, worked on more projects with him; Paul was extraordinarily popular in the euphemistic “certain circles” of DC.

From 2011-2017 I had the pleasure of serving alongside Paul on Jim Clapper’s “Intelligence Community Strategic Studies Group,” the DNI in-house thinktank of outside advisors and former IC S&T folks now in industry. We carpooled to meetings sometimes. (Paul was a master at bumming rides to Metro, which stretched into front-door-of-DARPA delivery because he was always in the middle of a fascinating story.) The ICSSG performed classified studies on demand, as a kind of red-cell or alternative-analysis team, including one short effort I led to explore “The Future of Intelligence” – Paul was on my group for that, and every meeting was a richly rewarding seminar for me, learning from him.

I’ll leave for future tributes his career contributions, but they were quiet and many, as he began his career during what is now called “the Second Offset” and was a nudging promoter for the birth of the Third Offset. The context and sense of history he brought to any topic were hard to rival. PK had studied under – and then worked with – one of the Cold War’s leading theoreticians, the titan Albert Wohlstetter (“one of the great defense intellectuals of the 20th century” per a Boston Globe profile, which mentions Paul among his protégés). PK was a figure from that founding era of a half-century of strategic stability amid global chaos. It’s difficult even now to think of future IC strategy meetings with no Kozemchak present to perturb and disrupt the groupthink, typically with wit and panache…

I always thought he had the best job in DC, at the interchange of invention and intelligence. Here’s a jokey email exchange from last summer, when DARPA’s director position was open:

PK email 1

Paul has also been a longtime fixture in our AFCEA Intelligence Committee (I described that here), and since 2010 I’ve listened as he enlightened that elite body at its monthly meetings, typically sharing an unknown R&D advance (ours or theirs) with, “Here’s something this group should know.” It always was.

Paul was always an energetic partner in planning and executing AFCEA’s annual classified Spring Intelligence Symposium, and I remember – for example – many fun moments leading up to the 2015 symposium, when we planned to have Elon Musk as our featured keynote interview, which I was to conduct onstage. It was going to be our big finale on the final afternoon of the symposium, timed to hold the audience in their seats to the end. Paul helped me devise a series of penetrating questions designed to drive Elon into a discussion of the national-security implications of AI and autonomy; he had just been helping the Defense Science Board with a landmark study on the topic. Then came word from Musk’s team that he would have to leave early – could we shift the schedule an hour? Paul volunteered to swap his own session on “S&T for Anticipatory Intelligence” to the final slot – gambling that the sell-out crowd wouldn’t just up and leave after Elon departed the stage. As I introduced Paul after getting rid of Elon, I cracked to the audience, “And now what you’ve all been waiting for, Paul Kozemchak, the only man in DC big enough to have Elon Musk as an opening act.”

Here’s a photo from that session, with Paul (left) smiling as ever over his index cards, having posed an elegantly insightful question to IARPA Director Peter Highnam:

DARPA's Paul Kozemchak, IARPA's Peter Highnam.jpg

I’m sad I’ll never again hear Paul ask another question, pose another challenge, solve another puzzle, make another joke. And the irony of having joined him in the DARPA building only to lose his friendship so quickly makes me even sadder.

It has made me look up something I recalled from years ago reading Tip O’Neill’s autobiography. That legendary Speaker of the House, who popularized the line “All politics is local,” had early on memorized a poem, which he was fond of reciting in packed Boston pubs or meeting halls throughout his career. It’s about friendship and staying in touch with old friends. I’ll close with the poem, and the thought of seeing PK one last time.

Around The Corner 

by Charles Hanson Towne (1877-1949)

Around the corner I have a friend,
In this great city that has no end,
Yet the days go by and weeks rush on,
And before I know it, a year is gone.

And I never see my old friend’s face,
For life is a swift and terrible race,
He knows I like him just as well,
As in the days when I rang his bell.

And he rang mine but we were younger then,
And now we are busy, tired men.
Tired of playing a foolish game,
Tired of trying to make a name.

“Tomorrow” I say! “I will call on Jim
Just to show that I’m thinking of him,”
But tomorrow comes and tomorrow goes,
And distance between us grows and grows.

Around the corner, yet miles away,
“Here’s a telegram sir,” “Jim died today.”
And that’s what we get and deserve in the end.
Around the corner, a vanished friend.

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10 Responses

  1. Thank you for the rememberence! We will miss PK and his views. I’m saddened that we will not have his commemts and suggestions for the future in this time of change and challenges.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, George – You know better than anyone how much he enjoyed the exchanges in your group. Thanks for giving us all such an important forum in which to work with such great people.

      Like

  2. What a beautiful tribute Lewis. I am glad I read it. Also glad I got to see you this week. So sad about Paul’s loss.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Annie – and yes, it was great to see you this week. I enjoyed the conference and learned a lot; it was the kind of thing Paul would have enjoyed & contributed to as well!

      Like

  3. You’ve made a lovely memory for all who may have never known your wonderful friend and now do. I am a great believer in expansive tributes summarizing qualities of life, the time on earth that marks one’s fellows. It proves we don’t vanish, for one thing, when the flesh is done with us; the humor, the passion, the ideas clearly enter in us and stay put.
    Marvelous poem you chose. May we all live long and prosper. And call the friends.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent tribute. A unique individual gone too soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a wonderful tribute to a friend. Thanks for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. By the way, i was just paging through PK’s excellent LinkedIn stream over the past year, he was pretty active there. Five months ago, he posted this great Johnny Cash song (out of nowhere, amid all of the other tech and strategic content he posted). It is a fitting listen on the day of his memorial service 😦

    Like

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