Inside the CIA's Extreme Technology Makeover, Part 4

The CIA, as part of its modernization efforts and anti-terror mission, is striving to use new applications like its Intellipedia wiki to share intelligence across formerly siloed government agencies. The changes in the last seven years have been significant, yet even more change is on the horizon.

The CIA is undergoing a major transformation, and IT is playing a leading role. In Part 4 of our inside look at the agency, we look at how the CIA is working to "play nicely" with the 15 other intelligence agencies. We also describe the IT department that CIO Al Tarasiuk leads and why he's protective of them and their efforts. (See "Inside the CIA's Extreme Technology Makeover, Part 1", Part 2 and Part 3, to read the first three parts in our series.)

"How to entice people to play"

Until 2004, the CIA was the de facto lead intelligence agency—the CIA director briefed the president every day. The CIA "fiercely opposed" the creation of the Directorate of National Intelligence (DNI) in 2004 before the CIA became just another one of the 16 agencies reporting into DNI, just as the U.S. Coast Guard's intel division does, according to a New Yorker profile of DNI chief Mike McConnell.

CIA seal

Other organizations that are a part of the DNI and are now required to share intelligence among the community include: the FBI, the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the National Security Agency (NSA), the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). CIA CIO Al Tarasiuk says that he meets with the CIOs of those five agencies regularly to talk about building out the "connectivity tissue" to each other as well as share ideas on how to "entice people to play" and share more information.

One of the more notable successes that the CIA has delivered to the intel community is the Intellipedia product, which was introduced in 2006. Based on wiki software, Intellipedia allows analysts in all 16 organizations in the intelligence community to share Web-based information on critical topics and search for intel expertise on a wide range of subjects, such as who's got expertise on Burundi. Unlike Wikipedia, there is no anonymity: Everyone is authenticated onto the system and quality control is high, reports Ken Westbrook, chief of business information strategy in the CIA's intelligence directorate.

So far, there are more than 40,000 registered users who have made 1.8 million page edits on more than 300,000 pages in the system. (Before Intellipedia, Westbrook says, "you'd have to send e-mails through lots of people and hope that they read them.") Still, not everyone has rushed out to embrace Intellipedia, and the difficulties of the change, note CIA officials, have been more cultural than technological due to the long-standing rivalries.

Half of the CIA's workforce is relatively new to the agency (applications poured in after 9/11) and many old-schoolers are getting ready to retire. The CIA is trying to get those ready to depart to dump their intellectual capital into systems like Intellipedia. In fact, Westbrook claims that one of the most prolific users of the system has been a 69-year-old employee preparing to retire. (CIA IT also uses wikis to keep track of project management.)

Other efforts rolled out or revamped within the past year show that the CIA is, at the very least, opening up the network connections to other agencies and offering more CIA "product," as Tarasiuk terms it.

One of these efforts is called CIA Wire. CIA Wire is a communications conduit the agency uses to disseminate its intelligence (through private networks) to the JWICS, or Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System, and the Department of Defense's secret-level network called SIPRNet (or Secret Internet Protocol Router Network).

"We now have a single agency-branded presence on those two sites, and that's how we disseminate—very much like a news outlet—fresh information, managed content and also some of our traditionally disseminated products," Tarasiuk says. "It's a huge deal for us." He says users can click on categories that contain intelligence and analysis on specific regions, such as Southeast Asia.

"We put the analysts in a room with the developers to work this out"

The CIA also boasts of grassroots Web-driven efforts that are sprouting up inside the intel community. One such effort is called Samizdat (which is a Russian word for self-publishing) and is a collaboration among the intelligence community analysts who follow Russian affairs that the CIA funded and provides the networking capabilities. The website incorporates Web 2.0 technologies, like blogs and wikis, breaking news intel and video.

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