Intel agencies see ‘appealing’ use cases for OTAs

Intelligence agencies are increasingly making use of other transaction agreements to acquire artificial intelligence tools and other technologies from non-traditional contractors, with civilian spy agencies like the CIA on the cusp of being granted OTA authority.

Margaret Augustine, senior acquisition executive at the CIA, said the agency is waiting for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to delegate the authority down to civilian intelligence agencies. She said the CIA has discussed the use of OTAs with other components like the National Security Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

“OTAs are appealing to me. Not necessarily the speed, but the creativity and the discussions that are born out of those conversations [about] solutions to be presented,” she said at a March 9 event hosted by GovCon Wire. “So I’m looking forward to actually adopting that as soon as possible into our portfolio.”

The CIA is eyeing the use of OTAs as part of its increasing focus on innovative digital technologies. In 2015, the agency established a Directorate of Digital Innovation. And in 2021, the CIA created a “chief technology officer” position and also established a Transnational and Technology Mission Center to address global issues, including new and emerging technologies.

Augustine said CIA acquisition officers are embedded within the new mission center “as they do outreach to emerging businesses, as well to help them bring new technologies into our space.”

Other transaction agreements are not subject to most federal procurement regulations, allowing agencies and companies to negotiate the terms and conditions of a specific project. In 2015, Congress codified the Defense Department’s ability to use the agreements to acquire prototype technologies.

The use of OTAs at DoD for prototyping projects has skyrocketed since the legislation. The agreements are lauded for their flexibility to quickly prototype and test capabilities, as well as their appeal for smaller companies and start-up firms that would otherwise struggle to compete for standard acquisition contracts.

However, oversight organizations have also noted the risks of entering into the agreements without strong controls and complete documentation.

In its report on the fiscal 2022 intelligence authorization bill, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence confirmed that the intelligence community has the ability to use other transactions.

The committee’s report noted that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence requested “explicit authorities” in legislation to “address questions ODNI receives concerning the availability of grants, cooperative agreements, and other transactions.”

But the committee “believes ODNI already has the authorities necessary to engage with nongovernmental entities on R&D activities,” the report states. “ODNI, for its part, believes it has the authority to enter into these kinds of agreements, but it has not executed one of those agreements to date.”

Intelligence agencies under the authority of DoD have already been using OTAs. The NSA started out using other transactions in some of “niche” areas, like high-performance computing, Diane Dunshee, the NSA’s senior acquisition executive, said at the GovCon Wire event.

The NSA is now looking at competing multiple OTAs for technologies like artificial intelligence, she said. The agency is currently in source selection with a competitive OTA  for “machine learning- [and] artificial intelligence-enabled language translation” tool, Dunshee said.

“We have a number of AI use cases that we’re going to be putting out, looking at not our traditional [defense industrial base] companies,” she said. “What is the prototype you could give us? And then we are developing assessment criteria,  and how would we select one and potentially integrate it.”

Meanwhile, the Defense Intelligence Agency has established a separate component within its contracting organization devoted to managing other transaction agreements, grants and broad agency announcements, Judith Oxman, DIA’s deputy senior acquisition executive, said at the event.

“Not as a part of somebody else’s initiative or requirement, but as a separate focus,” Oxman said. She added DIA is using its “NeedipeDIA” website to communicate unclassified capability needs and accept proposals “to see if it does fit our bill, and [we’re] hoping to get input from nontraditional companies from there as well.”

The NSA is even turning to OTAs to prototype new tools for its internal acquisition processes. Dunshee said the agency is planning to develop an AI tool that can assist with contract review as part of an upcoming OTA.

“I think this is really exciting,” she said. “It is going to be faster than a contract. And on the small scale pilots, we are getting interest from many of our nontraditional companies.”

 

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