The spy who came in from Silicon Valley

The name is Louie. Gilman Louie.

And if it doesn't have the ring of Bond, James Bond, just consider it part of the changing world of cloak-and-dagger espionage.

Mr. Louie, a Chinese-American born in San Francisco and made wealthy by his love of video games, is sitting in a glass-paneled conference room in his new offices on the edge of Silicon Valley.

Relaxed in jeans, running shoes, and a white knit shirt, the boyish Louie epitomizes the ways in which the digital, Internet-based world is slowly reshaping the nation's key institutions, one by one.

Louie's job is to drag the Central Intelligence Agency into the Digital Age, a task that brings the secretive, bureaucratic world of Washington into collision with the entrepreneurial ways of Silicon Valley. But Louie is confident of success because of what he calls "the cool factor."

"In Silicon Valley you do things for two reasons: because of the money, or because you get a chance to do cool stuff," he says.

And developing the latest technology for the CIA ranks high on the "cool stuff" meter, according to Louie.

CIA invests in a start-up

Louie is head of a unique new CIA venture called In-Q-Tel, which has recently set up offices in Silicon Valley. An example of the coastal collisions he will face occurred last week, when the CIA agreed to change the venture's name after software company Intuit complained that the original moniker, In-Q-It, was too similar. The "Q" is a whimsical reference to the agent who keeps the fictitious Bond equipped with the latest in spy gadgetry.

Whimsical? CIA?

Implanting some humor in the name is just one sign that this venture is unusual. The CIA is also plowing new ground in funding what is in effect a start-up, and doing it quite openly.

It's both an acknowledgment of new thinking at the CIA, say analysts, and a recognition of the speed of the technology changes rippling across the globe.

Indeed, in announcing the formation of In-Q-Tel last fall, CIA director George Tenet said the pace of technological change "dictates a change in the way the intelligence community does business."

Bridging the Washington and Silicon Valley cultures, however, won't be easy.

Executive headhunter Randy Jayne had the job of finding the right leader for the new venture, someone with impeccable technology credentials who was willing to surrender the high earning potential of Silicon Valley for government service.

"It was a near-impossible kind of assignment," says Mr. Jayne, a senior partner at Heidrick & Struggles. What Jayne came up with was a short list of candidates, most with a strong understanding of the intelligence community but short on understanding of the ways of Silicon Valley. Louie offered the opposite, deep understanding of the valley but no familiarity with government service.

No matter. Louie was the hands-down choice, an acknowledgment that the CIA needed a different kind of mind set to tackle the technology component of today's intelligence needs.

In many ways, Louie is a classic Silicon Valley success story. At a young age he took his passion for video games and launched a business from his parents' dinner table, using funds from a second mortgage they took out on their home. His company became Spectrum Holobyte, which eventually merged with Microprose, a combination that was later bought by Hasbro.

Louie's appointment as the first head of In-Q-Tel is noteworthy in Silicon Valley terms because government service is not often on the rsum of successful technology entrepreneurs. Yet for Louie, government service is not an alien concept. He made an unsuccessful run for the San Francisco School Board in 1986 and has been outspoken in opposition to some controversial state ballot initiatives in recent years.

Louie intends to build In-Q-Tel into a small organization of about 30 people, and expects most to stay only for a couple of years, an approach more consistent with Silicon Valley than the bureaucracies of Washington. So far, his recruitment efforts have drawn a mix of wealthy retirees (that means in their 40s in Silicon Valley) and young entrepreneurs who would likely otherwise be involved in Internet start-ups.

One of In-Q-Tel's most formidable tasks is developing new ways to sift data amid the ocean of open-source information sloshing through the Internet at all times. Helping the CIA get the information it needs quickly and reliably, regardless of the form or language, is central to the agency's effectiveness. "For people in the know," says Louie, "this is really exciting stuff."

In-Q-Tel will also be involved in developing tools to make the Internet increasingly secure as it becomes more central to the nation's economy and infrastructure.

Risk of failure

"The Internet is such a young technology, it is a very vulnerable place," says Louie.

In-Q-Tel has about $30 million in seed money from the federal government, and plans to use that money to invest in technology that solves CIA problems.

Louie fully expects many of the technologies In-Q-Tel invests in to fail. Such is the way of Silicon Valley. And that willingness to fail is the biggest change Louie sees in the CIA's mind set.

"The biggest problem the CIA has had historically has been unwillingness to take risk. For them to be willing to include failures in their portfolio is the clearest change," says Louie.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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