Sitting in a dark boardroom and flanked by World War II spy posters, Harry D. Gatanas is blunt about what's happened at the National Security Agency over the past 15 years: The code-breaking organization lost its technological edge.

The Internet ushered in an era of commercial innovation that outpaced NSA's advancements, said Gatanas, the agency's senior acquisition executive. So to keep up with the world around it, the secretive organization based at Fort Meade has been forced to open its doors and do business with the private sector.

"All these companies are out there building things and the adversaries have access to that technology," Gatanas said in a recent interview at the NSA's National Cryptologic Museum. "We don't want to have blinders on; we want to look at these new technologies."

The agency's increased efforts to buy technologies and services from private companies began in 1999, Gatanas said, but have ramped up even further during recent months. NSA procurement officials held a press conference earlier this month to explain their procedures and last week announced a partnership with the state of Maryland that is intended to help companies develop relationships with the agency.

"I think it's very intimidating," Paul H. Mauritz, Maryland's director of technology strategy and business development, said of the NSA's reputation as a business partner. "If you're a product company and you believe NSA would be a buyer . . . it's very difficult to demonstrate that product. You have to have a security clearance just to get on board."

The NSA is charged with protecting the U.S. government's information systems and monitoring the communication of foreign nations. Much of the work that its 30,000 employees perform involves highly technical encryption and code-breaking procedures, Gatanas said.

Until the 1990s, the NSA did most of its development work in-house, Gatanas said. But as technology advanced, the agency found that it needed to "reach out to industry to help it solve its mission," he added.

About 85 percent of its procurements are technology-related. The agency is always looking for the most advanced systems, Gatanas said, and is particularly interested in supercomputing, language analysis, biometrics and signal processing technologies.

Last year the agency spent more than $2 billion buying goods and services from companies in Maryland, according to Gatanas. He declined to disclose the agency's total annual procurement figure. The NSA's budget is classified. Of the 2,500 companies registered with the NSA's database, more than 1,000 of them are from Maryland and 814 of those are small businesses.

The first stop for any company that wants to do business with the NSA is an orientation session at the agency's Acquisition Research Center in Hanover. At the two-hour, bi-weekly sessions, companies are briefed on the agency's needs, policies and regulations.

Interested firms are then required to register with the agency and submit a 500-word essay detailing their offerings and capabilities. When the NSA wants to hire a firm for a specific project or buy a particular technology, requests for proposals are sent to registered companies.

NSA's contract awards are not always announced, but Gatanas said the agency does hold competitions for most of its acquisitions.

The biggest challenge for most companies attempting to strike a deal with the NSA is its stringent security clearance procedures. The agency has its own clearance process that includes polygraph tests. The process takes an average of more than 200 days to complete, although the agency is trying to reduce that time to four months or less.

In addition, companies generally must already have contracts in place to get clearances, although Gatanas's office has begun to sponsor some firms through the process before they've been awarded contracts to get more new companies involved.

Pragmatics Inc., of McLean, a 19-year-old company that provides software engineering and information security services, won its first contract with the agency two years ago after attending an information session for small businesses. That contract -- which included orders for a variety of technology products and services -- was the company's first major deal with an intelligence agency, said Rick Roach, director of information assurance at the 200-person company.

ManTech International Corp., which in April won a four-year, $22.5 million deal to do engineering and maintenance work on NSA communication systems, has been doing business with the agency since the early 1980s. Peter B. LaMontagne, ManTech's senior corporate vice president, said doing business with the NSA is not that different from doing business with any other defense agency.

The biggest challenge, he said, was finding employees with the right skills who either have a clearance already or are willing to go through the agency's clearance process. "When it comes to dealing with NSA, companies just have to realize that security is the most important issue," LaMontagne said.

Ellen McCarthy writes about the local tech scene every other Thursday. Her e-mail address is mccarthye@washpost.com.