Trade Group Does Who Knows What

John M. McConnell, the director of national intelligence, is former chairman of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance.
John M. McConnell, the director of national intelligence, is former chairman of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)

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By Alec Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 2, 2007

Enter a nondescript building in Ballston, take the escalator to the second floor, and make a sharp right. There, next to a MyEyeDr. shop, is Room 205, with little to hint that it's a gathering place for spies and their business associates. There is, though, a locked door: You have to be buzzed in to enter the Intelligence and National Security Alliance.

The group, a nonprofit professional association for members of the intelligence community -- including private contractors, academics and members of U.S. spy agencies -- is largely unknown. That's quite a feat, because its chairman, retired Navy Vice Adm. John M. McConnell, the former head of the National Security Agency, left recently to be sworn in as director of national intelligence, the president's top intelligence adviser. (A new chairman for the professional association is expected to be selected soon.)

Since the group's inception nearly 30 years ago as the Security Affairs Support Association, it has never been profiled in the media, its officers say. But in 2005, the group renamed itself and began to broaden its mission. It is no longer just a place where spies, not the most forthcoming of sorts, can network with other spies and business partners; the group is working to introduce a growing network of private contractors, large and small, to government intelligence agencies. Like much of the rest of the government, U.S. intelligence agencies are increasingly outsourcing what they need in the name of expediency: cutting-edge technology, goods and services, such as gee-whiz satellites, particularly to protect against another terrorist attack.

"Intelligence is more important now to preserve the peace," said Timothy R. Sample, INSA's president. "It stems from the history that we have as a nation of tending once we get through a crisis of building down intelligence. The most dramatic example of that was the decision to look for the so-called peace dividend at the end of the Cold War, where we cut our intelligence resources extensively and then 9/11 happened. . . . We're still in the catch-up mode."

Open-collared casual and affable, the 49-year-old Sample could pass for a successful businessman shooting the breeze. But his résumé is all about national security: He's a product of the Air Force, where he was an intelligence analyst for about 4 1/2 years, and the CIA, where he spent about 12 years as an imagery analyst, a specialist in Soviet weapons and a negotiator of treaties with the Soviet Union. He was staff director of the House intelligence committee from 2000 to 2003. He left General Dynamics, where he was vice president for intelligence strategy and programs, in 2005 to join INSA.

Sample's second-in-command at INSA gives off more of the air of a former spook. Even Frank F. Blanco's age is on a need-to-know basis, and he needs it not to be known. The group's executive vice president is distinguished, silver-haired and buttoned-down in a dark-blue-suit-NSA kind of way. He spent 30 years at that secretive agency, retiring in 2001 as the executive director, the NSA's third-highest-ranking official, to join the professional association.

Blanco said INSA is "a forum for thoughtful discussion on issues critical to the nation," including "domestic intelligence, the security clearance process for contractor personnel and ways to highlight the innovation that is taking place across America in smaller companies."

Reflecting the world both men come from, INSA keeps things close to the vest. For example, it will not reveal the names of most of its members. It claims about 1,500 members, including private contractors and members of every government intelligence agency. The people remaking INSA represent much of the vanguard of the intelligence-industrial complex: BAE Systems, Booz Allen Hamilton, Computer Sciences, General Dynamics, Hewlett-Packard, Lockheed Martin, ManTech International, Microsoft, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and SAIC.

INSA doesn't just make introductions for such members; it conducts research and analysis, and sponsors workshops, symposiums and councils on such matters as domestic intelligence, security, counterintelligence and innovative technologies. Since September, it has funded a Georgetown University professorship in the practice of intelligence, held by retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr., the former director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency who has been nominated as undersecretary of defense for intelligence.

Appropriately enough, INSA's offices are near Rosslyn and Crystal City, two unofficial centers of private intelligence and national defense contractors. But it's hard for INSA to give much of a definitive shape to this undefined nexus between intelligence contractors and the government agencies they work for, a cast of characters located mostly in greater Washington, with the occasional cluster in such places as Silicon Valley.

INSA isn't sure just how many intelligence contractors are out there, reckoning only that there are several thousand. The group says it's hard to make an estimate in part because many contractors identify themselves as defense firms, not intelligence shops. Even so, an accounting of publicly available government contracts shows that many of the top recipients include major contractors who do intelligence work, according to OMB Watch, a nonprofit group in Washington. For example, SAIC is ranked eighth in federal contracts awarded in fiscal 2006 with $3.48 billion -- and that's just the reported figure, which doesn't include classified work SAIC that may be doing. Or not.

INSA does have a good idea of how much in annual revenue intelligence contractors generate in a given year but doesn't disclose it because so much of their work is classified. What kind of spy group would it be, after all, if it coughed up secrets?

The association will disclose that the intelligence contracting business is growing, but the rate of growth is also shrouded in secrecy. The fall of communism "was hard on intelligence," Blanco said. But Sept. 11, 2001, changed that. With government agencies looking to quickly grab the latest intelligence technology, many have turned to private contractors -- outsourcing much of the spy business. "Then," Blanco said, "there was a big ramp-up."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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