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.

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Mission is above all else, he says, and political beliefs contrary to mission are to be checked at the gate. "Our people are very good about focusing on the mission and not worrying about all that stuff," he says. "When they're here, they're focused on getting the job done because the mission is priority to them." (To see how the CIA IT watches its own, see "Under Surveillance: How Does the CIA Keep Its IT Staff Honest?")

Tarasiuk also has to deal with the intense public and media scrutiny that comes along with working at an agency that is covered in media reports related to the alleged torturing of detainees in the war on terror. He defends his agency and watches over his staff closely, instructing them to focus on their mission. "We're a secretive intelligence service, so we know things here that we can't talk about, and a lot of it is very, very positive," he adds.

Al Tarasiuk
CIA CIO Al Tarasiuk

Over several interviews, Tarasiuk appears very protective of his staffers. When asked how he keeps IT workers' focus on the mission at hand and not on CIA controversies (such as allegations that CIA officers tortured detainees at various "black sites" around the world), Tarasiuk is resolute. "Because of the history and things that have happened in the past, it's always going to be a lightning rod when there's a discussion about this agency," he says. "One of my roles that I take very seriously is to isolate our folks from the stuff that gets put out that's not true. I basically tell them not to worry about it and focus on mission."

The mission since 9/11 created a new intensity and pace that were foreign to many inside IT. The "ops tempo" quickly became 24/7/365. "We've got to keep systems up no matter what," Tarasiuk says. This had always been the case for those IT assignments outside headquarters, and now it has permeated the entire organization. (To read an interview with one CIA IT worker who has spent years overseas and in war zones, see "What It's Like to Work Overseas for the CIA's IT Group.")

Extracting specifics about the IT workforce he manages is difficult. He can't talk about the number of staffers, size of his budget, or specifics of networks and most applications. (He uses the word "stuff" a lot to describe things.) "I can't get into specific details about what we use," Tarasiuk says, though he does offer that his is a Microsoft shop, and they use Sun systems and other Linux-based platforms.

In Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, author Tim Weiner offers a scathing account of the CIA's history that mostly recounts its epic failures of incompetence and the occasional success. (The CIA took issue with the "selective citations, sweeping assertions and a fascination with the negative," which it has said of Weiner's 2007 book.) One of the long-held views about the CIA (which Weiner terms a "myth") is that all the CIA's successes were kept secret, and that only its failures were trumpeted. When asked, in his office, if that statement was just as applicable to inequities of leading an IT organization today, Tarasiuk gives a knowing, polite smile but doesn't directly respond to the question.

In a later conversation, however, Tarasiuk offers that "the problem with our organization is that we can't talk about all these things." He says, "I think if the American public knew how effective this organization is, there would be a different tone."

"It doesn't get any easier when there's a change of administration"

From now until Jan. 20, 2009, when a new president takes office, Tarasiuk will continue to build on his successes ("It's only the beginning for us," he says) and IT's standing inside CIA, knowing full well that more change is inevitable. "It doesn't get any easier when there's a change of administration," says Ken Orr, principal researcher at The Ken Orr Institute and a former member of the National Research Council (NRC) committee. "It's not a bad time to finish things, but it's a really hard to time to start things."

A looming budget downturn for the CIA is expected, Tarasiuk says, and he's concerned about maintaining the same level of service and delivery that everyone has become accustomed to. Lastly, there is still a war going on and a terrorist threat that has been weakened but is still, as described by the 9/11 Commission, "sophisticated, patient, disciplined and lethal."

Back inside in his office, splayed out in front of Tarasiuk on a conference table, is a mix of glossy, government-issued strategic road maps. He touches all of the booklets: "National Strategy for Information Sharing," courtesy of the president in October 2007; "United States Intelligence Community Information Sharing Strategy," from the director of national intelligence's office in February 2008; and "Strategic Intent: 2007-2011," the CIA's road map for the next five years. Last is Tarasiuk's own contribution to the group: "CIA Enterprise IT Strategic Plan: 2007-2011."

"All this means change. This is huge change for us. OK?" Tarasiuk says. "But we're doing a lot of things as a government to make sure that we don't have another incident, at least one that's not attributable to a lack of sharing data."

More on the CIA:

To read an interview with one CIA IT worker who has spent years overseas and in war zones, see "What It's Like to Work Overseas for the CIA's IT Group." To see how the CIA IT watches its own, see "Under Surveillance: How Does the CIA Keep Its IT Staff Honest?"

See Part 1 (8/4/08): A business-IT alignment project like few others

See Part 2 (8/5/08): How IT moved to center stage at the CIA in the wake of 9/11

See Part 3 (8/6/08): The CIA's CIO navigates a tense line between making data visible and keeping secrets


Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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