Gathering IT intelligence

It's no secret: The CIA hopes its independent corporation, In-Q-Tel, will serve as a model for other agencies trying to keep up in Internet time.

Facing a shortage of talent, time and funding for research and development, the intelligence agency decided in May 1998 to try a commercial approach to information technology incubation.

In-Q-Tel exists solely to help identify and develop breakthrough IT that the CIA can use to modernize its systems.

In venture capital style, In-Q-Tel, launched with $28 million in fiscal 1999, helps IT researchers create successful commercial products with the CIA's needs in mind, said Basil Scott, technical director of the Q Interface Center at the CIA.

In-Q-Tel finds interesting, mature research that meets the CIA's needs and can be ready for beta testing at the agency within a year, Scott said during last month's dg.o 2000 workshop in Los Angeles, which highlighted National Science Foundation-funded research. In-Q-Tel helps transfer the solution into the CIA, which avoids the high costs of creating custom IT products.

In-Q-Tel already has established some promising relationships. For example, the company is investing in software developed by Science Applications International Corp. that can withstand denial-of-service attacks.

"We've really had a chance to connect with the commercial world," Scott said. "We find companies and technology we otherwise would not."

Investing in commercially developed technology will save the government money in the long run, Scott said, but he acknowledged that the concept has sparked skepticism and controversy. Some issues include the near-term focus of industry's IT development, procurement regulations and congressional oversight, he said. It also raises questions as to whether the government should own intellectual property developed by a commercial entity, he said. Competition is another area of concern. In-Q-Tel's investments could be perceived as having the inside track in CIA procurements, according to Melvyn Ciment, director of information technologies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. With the short time it takes to bring IT from development to application, it is feasible that technology developed with In-Q-Tel funds would be ready for acquisition on CIA's time line. Scott said the CIA has encouraged competition and has successfully dealt with three situations in which the issue came up. "We need to assure that In-Q-Tel is for research and prototypes, not operational systems that are procured," Scott said. In-Q-Tel has a competition policy that requires a market survey to be conducted to find out if a proposal is unique before any decisions are made, he said.

The CIA itself had significant concerns initially, especially regarding the security of allowing commercial insight into CIA requirements and using commercial rather than custom products, Scott said.

"In the last six months, we have overcome a lot of those suspicions," he added.

Government venture capital may be the way to encourage risk-taking in government, said Roger Baker, chief information officer at the Commerce Department. Such an arrangement may produce better returns for less investment than awarding research and development contracts, he said.

"There are things the NSA and CIA need to encourage from an R&D standpoint that the commercial arena doesn't need," Baker said. "Doing it from a venture capital approach may be better in the long ru

The government's IT problems are not so different from the private sector that they require dedicated research efforts, Baker said. Government and industry should work together, and this approach could be one way to do it. "The more we utilize the path the private sector's already shown, the better we already are."

The Transportation Department may look at the In-Q-Tel model for advances in intelligent transportation systems, but not for IT in general, said George Molaski, CIO at the Transportation Department.

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