NSA's Mr. Fix-it
Procurement chief revamps a broken process
- By George I. Seffers
- Jun 18, 2001
Harry Gatanas is wasting no time doing what the National Security Agency hired him to do — fix a multibillion-dollar acquisition system that is, by nearly all accounts, broken. Gatanas is the agency's first-ever senior acquisition executive — a position NSA officials created when they decided that their frequently criticized procurement process needed repairs.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reported in 1999 that the agency relied too heavily on too few suppliers, awarded too many contracts without competition — one in three last year — was woefully ineffective in managing acquisition programs, and had no control over managing its finances. In short, the agency didn't know what it was buying, or why and how it was buying it.
Congressional and internal NSA audits all reached the same conclusion — the agency needed an acquisition executive to provide budgetary discipline and to act as a central point for acquisition activity. That's where Gatanas came in.
"My No. 1 objective now is to restore the agency's credibility. My No. 2 objective goes hand in hand with that — to create an acquisition process here that is very disciplined but fast moving so that we can acquire the technology we need to deal with the future," Gatanas said.
In response to criticism from contractors, Gatanas said, "It pains me to hear from Boeing Space Systems that they don't know how to do business with the NSA. When a major defense contractor tells me that, I know there are problems here."
Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, NSA director, brought Gatanas on board in August 2000 after recognizing that threats to the global network are "unpredictable and can come from anywhere in the world where U.S. interests are at risk." As a result, Hayden said, "it is imperative that our acquisition process enables NSA to respond rapidly to ever-changing world events."
A retired Army major general with 28 years of acquisition experience, Gatanas is "the right man at the right time," according to John Whiteford, NSA's acting chief information officer.
Since assuming his position, Gatanas has already instituted several changes that he said have put the agency's ailing acquisition process on the road to recovery. "We've gone from zero to 100 miles an hour overnight," Gatanas said, adding that he can now procure in eight weeks what once took eight months.
The most visible change is the Groundbreaker project, a classified effort to modernize the agency's nonmission information technology infrastructure. The $5 billion project covers four areas: distributed computing, enterprise security management, networks and telephony. NSA expects to award the contract in July, but Gatanas said he would award it sooner, if possible.
Gatanas' parents have indirectly made him conscious of the need to spend government funds wisely, he said. His father was a merchant marine and away from home much of the time, leaving his mother to raise three boys in New York City.
"My parents live on Social Security, so I take very seriously how the government spends money. I'm very much interested in ensuring we don't have fraud, waste and abuse," he said.
Gatanas also credits his mother for having piqued his interest in the art of acquisition. Despite being unable to speak English and having only a third-grade education, she is a strong woman with a knack for spending wisely, Gatanas said.
"She's a very tough bargainer when it comes to dealing with merchants. Maybe that's where my acquisition skills come from," he said. "She constantly would challenge people who were selling things, and I think I learned that if you talk long enough, you can strike a better bargain."