Inside the CIA's Extreme Technology Makeover, Part 2

The CIA suffered through budget and personnel cuts and was a less-focused place in the days after the Cold War ended, and its IT systems struggled to aid in the CIA's new missions. But everything changed on 9/11, and IT became a focal point in the agency as the government pursued a war on terrorism.

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Ken Westbrook, chief of business information strategy in the CIA's intelligence directorate (the analysts), recalls a tough period that was emblematic of much of the 1990s and early 2000s. From 1996 to 2000, Westbrook was deployed to the Balkan Task Force, which was established in 1992 as an interagency group that worked in concert with Allied military forces and collected intelligence on terrorist threats, terrain and infrastructure in Bosnia.

Ken Westbrook
Ken Westbrook, the Director of Intelligence's liaison with IT

"We were working 24 hours a day during the war in Kosovo," Westbrook says, "and I just watched analysts struggle trying to do simple things, like trying to get access to information that they needed or trying to communicate with people."

The CIA's main information-handling system at the time, called CIRAS, lacked basic features, such as the ability to distinguish what documents have been read and what hadn't, and assumed that analysts read everything in sequence and chronologically, Westbrook says. And, according to a CIA researcher, the search and networking capabilities of CIRAS were "primitive." (CIRAS was finally replaced in 2007 by a more modern system, called Trident.)

The consequences of bad intel can be deadly. News reports from 2000 show that the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war in 1999, which killed three and injured 20, occurred, in part, because CIA officers targeted what they thought was a Yugoslav army warehouse. The data was based on outdated maps, and others failed to catch the mistake before the proposal was passed to the military.

So, for Westbrook, it was the overwhelming difficulties in accessing information, the pervasive stovepipes of data and the gulf between the abilities of the CIA's systems and those of the private sector that got him involved with IT. "I became convinced that IT was a critical element to support analysis, and I was convinced that we were not on the right path," he says. "We can't get the work of analysis done without good IT."

"Do all we can, with whatever we have on the shelves"

The CIA wasn't alone in data-sharing and technology woes in the '90s, even as new threats began emerging. "The intelligence community struggled throughout the 1990s and up to 9/11 to collect intelligence on and analyze the phenomenon of transnational terrorism," notes the 9/11 Commission report. "The combination of an overwhelming number of priorities, flat budgets, an outmoded structure and bureaucratic rivalries resulted in an insufficient response to this new challenge."

But all that changed at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001.

The terrorist attacks on the United States and resultant global war on terror changed everything at the CIA, especially IT, which is called Global Communications Services. "It renewed focus in a mission," says Tarasiuk, who a senior manager in the IT infrastructure organization at the time of the attacks. "The global war on terror, all of the sudden, became the agenda for the agency. The sense of mission came back, and the idea of being part of the tip of the sword in the fight against all this."

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