US DOD may ban foreign IT workers

In a post-Sept. 11 initiative to boost security, the US Department of Defence is quietly considering a proposal to ban foreign IT workers from taking part in unclassified but sensitive IT projects throughout the military.

The draft policy, which the Pentagon hasn't yet released, could be approved in 60 to 90 days, according to DOD sources.

Harris Miller, president of the Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America, a trade association representing more than 500 companies, sent a letter (.pdf format) on March 18 to the Pentagon's senior acquisition and technology official urging a full public review and discussion of a policy he referred to as "xenophobic."

"The implications could be substantial," wrote Miller in his letter to Edward Aldridge, the DOD's undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics. "America's defense readiness depends on having ready access to the best available technology and technical skill sets. Precipitous action here could make it much more difficult and expensive for the military services to acquire the requisite IT services."

The Pentagon hadn't replied to Miller by press time.

The potential change in DOD policy comes at a time when the pool of U.S. citizens with IT skills is shrinking rapidly and many companies are off-setting higher salaries demanded by U.S. workers with overseas talent.

"When you look at the normal pool of available IT people, we have a big problem," said Anthony Valetta, former acting assistant secretary of defense and currently a vice president at SRA International Inc., a defense contractor in Fairfax, Va.

'A Bigger Problem'

"Those people are not your average American kids anymore," said Valetta. "If this happens beyond the DOD, we have a bigger problem on our hands."

That's exactly what some business executives, like Vince Coll, president of iConcepts Inc., an IT outsourcing firm in Lansdale, Pa., fear most. A governmentwide ban on noncitizens would significantly drive up the costs for many companies that now do a lot of software development offshore, he said.

"The whole industry would be severely damaged, as would the government," said Coll, whose company lost a bid to be a subcontractor to a major defense firm because iConcepts software code was written in Bulgaria.

Chip Mather, a defense acquisition analyst at Acquisition Solutions Inc. in Chantilly, Va., said such a policy would be almost impossible to impose due to the makeup of the current IT labor pool and the fact that a lot of software development and related tasks are done overseas and not in DOD facilities. "I'd be more concerned about the coders than I would be about the people on-site," said Mather. However, he added, "there's no direct correlation between citizenship and a person's desire not to commit espionage."

Miller reiterated that message in his letter to the Pentagon. "Public policy must be based on real-world actions and tangible threats - not supposition and innuendo," he wrote. "During the 1990s, [U.S.] citizens perpetrated several of the most damaging intelligence leaks in U.S. history."

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