The NSA contemplates its navel

NSA will have to get out of its own way if it wants to rapidly ingest innovation technology from people it doesn't know.

I’m addicted to comments readers make under popular news stories. Some of the mass media outlets generate thousands of comments on a single story, especially if the stories are about people like Hillary or The Donald. I’ve seen award-winning columnists get called senile, conservative statesmen called communists, and liberal statesmen called fascists. If you read comments in a publication long enough, you feel like you know the frequent ones.

Commenters are like 21st century version of Greek choruses, a stadium of disagreeing — and often disagreeable — voices, all shouting at once.

But sometimes the commenters offer valid corrections, reasonable alternative perspectives.

Such is the case in Scott Maucione’s story on the National Security Agency. NSA is trying to bootstrap its acquisition system so it can keep what it considers innovative technology companies interested in NSA business. And attract new ones that haven’t had the pleasure of trying to do business with the agency. Although one story commenter blamed the problem on President George W. Bush, a more reasoned one said, “You don’t get innovation with a government procurement process. You don’t get innovation when you’re buried in paperwork and security.”

Now, the NSA has to be secure. Security is its middle name. But it requires such security of its vendors that many would-be’s give up in disgust or figure it’s not worth the bother.

A couple of years ago, I attended a panel discussion somewhere, during which an NSA contracting officer and a program manager discussed what it takes to do business with the agency. Whatever clearances you have with lesser lights in the intelligence community, fuhgettaboutit — it’s no good at the NSA. You can’t even send a non-cleared person into an NSA conference room to make a pitch. Ditto for whatever fabulous work you might be doing with one of those other agencies — it won’t count as past performance at NSA. Basically, they said, expect to toil for 5 years before getting onto the NSA’s approved vendor list.

I admired their candor, but what a terrible process for an agency that might be interested in the latest data analytics algorithms or crypto-doodad.

It’s not as if the agency is a blank. This page on its website offers a semi-cheery path for would-be suppliers. But it’s basically about how to register, not how to sell. The agency has made progress. It never posted a syllable on FedBizOpps until last December, when it sought what it called innovative technologies.

Now it’s looking to set up some sort of rapid acquisition or rapid acquisition office, what it’s called a Skunk Works after Lockheed’s famous airplane development hangar. As one commenter points out, the original Skunk Works made mold-breaking products like the fabled SR-71 Blackbird, U-2 and the earlier XP-38. They were made out of sight of everyone else in the company. The question for NSA will be how much it is willing to extend trust to companies and people it doesn’t know.

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More commentary from Tom Temin