CIA goes snooping in Silicon Valley for secrets of hi-tech intelligence

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The Independent US

It has been a long time since espionage was cool or sexy. James Bond films aside, there has not been much call recently for self-destructing tape messages or bugs concealed in fountain pens. The end of the Cold War stole the spooks' main reason for existing, and the internet robbed them of their technological chic.

But now the United States's Central Intelligence Agency thinks it has hit upon the ideal way to get its groove back. The CIA is throwing caution (and several tens of millions of dollars) to the wind, joining the frenzy and investing in Silicon Valley.

For the past few months, the CIA has been operating a small venture capital fund out of San Mateo, south of San Francisco. But In-Q-Tel is not just any venture capital fund. For a start, it is a non-profit organisation, which makes it a bit of an oddity in the frenzied laboratory of the new world economy where twentysomething computer whizzes are happily making their fortunes.

Then again, In-Q-Tel has rather specialised interests. It is not looking for the next cool way to swap musical downloads, or place orders for organic groceries. What it wants is a super-smart search engine to marshal all the information on the internet - in secret if possible. It is seeking a computer security system that can both protect data and foil hackers. Most of all, it wants these things for itself, now, before everyone else gets wise to them and ruins the mystique of it all.

It seems to be registering some modest success. It started with $28m [£18m] in funds allocated from the CIA's main budget, and is about to receive $34m [£22m] more with the blessing of Congress. It has invested in eight companies, including one with a software package to track digital information and another specialising in high-grade electronic sensors.

The man charged with the task of making the CIA look hip to the tech-heads of northern California is Gilman Louie, a technological whizz in his own right who developed computer games such as Tetris and Hasbro Toys' flight simulator.

Although well plugged into government - he shuttles regularly between California, Washington and the CIA's headquarters in Langley, Virginia - he also walks the walk with his youthful appearance, his black turtlenecks and his unpretentious manner.

Not that he has any illusions about the precariousness of his venture. He recently described it as being "like making love in Times Square: everyone gets to watch and everyone has an opinion".

If In-Q-Tel (yes, that "Q" is an affectionate nod to the Bond movies) is a success, it could be a nice little earner for the CIA and its research programmes. If it fails, it will have one advantage most venture capitalists cannot boast: it can go back to Congress and beg for more money.