Regional development officials and congressional leaders are hailing the National Security Agency's plan to outsource more than 2,000 jobs as a boon to local industry and a much-needed boost toward modernizing the agency's technological backbone.
Following a trend in the intelligence community, the move to turn over the agency's basic computer and telephone functions to private companies is expected to streamline the agency and save it $1 billion over 10 years.
In an agency that has long had one of the most secure job environments in federal government, the decision is likely to send shock waves through the agency's 20,000 local workers. The NSA has never laid off workers, a testament to the sophistication of the jobs as much as to a desire to prevent a revolving employment door at the nation's most secret spy agency.
NSA officials said they expect the private company that emerges to hire most of the 1,200 to 1,500 employees and 800 contract workers whose jobs will be outsourced.
But NSA officials have been careful to note, and they repeated yesterday, that there are no guarantees, and they have acknowledged that the reason private industry can often do the job cheaper and faster is that it can do the job with fewer people.
The change will also eliminate contracts to 25 smaller local technology companies that now provide the 800 contract workers.
Richard C. Mike Lewin, Maryland's secretary of business and economic development, said that despite those concerns, his department expects only positive results. The need for technology workers and smaller technology companies has never been greater, he said.
"I'm sure there is going to be a lot of fear of dislocation," he said, "but the demand for these workers and their specialized knowledge is so strong I don't anticipate we will see anything like that."
"We would be eager to step in as well, if needed," Lewin said. "We could fill 16,000 information technology jobs tomorrow if we could find the workers. ...
"The entity that will be created to [do this job] will be one of the biggest information technology companies in the world. We believe this will be the model for the future."
The NSA had asked the country's 20 biggest technology companies to form consortiums and submit bids.
Officials expect to receive bids in December from three such consortiums: OAO Technology Solutions Inc., Computer Sciences Corp. and a partnership between AT&T; and IBM. The NSA expects to award the contract in April 2001.
A large technology company won't necessarily bring new jobs to the area - NSA employees hold those jobs and live in the area - but could attract other technology companies and spawn industries in the Baltimore region, Lewin said.
The NSA is not the first agency in federal government or the first intelligence agency to turn to private companies to streamline operations.
Last year, the CIA incorporated a venture capital company to invest in high-tech start-ups, and talk about shifting more functions at the CIA and FBI to private business has recently been revived in Congress.
"We've got private enterprise outpacing government," said Rep. Porter J. Goss, a Florida Republican who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. "We've got to take advantage of that ... and harness some of that young, private sector talent out there for our national security."
"Change doesn't come easy for government, " Goss said yesterday, "but it's been a drum we've been beating, and finally we're getting some response."
The NSA's plans also alleviate criticism that the agency has been lagging behind technological developments in recent years, leading to the agency's computer shutdown in January.
Goss said committee members are confident that the move will allow the NSA to focus more on its mission and become more efficient.