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.

The CIA is undergoing a major transformation, and IT is playing a leading role. In Part 2 of our inside look at the agency, CIA employees describe the environment pre- and post-9/11, and the massive changes that resulted from that day's tragic events. Like other government agencies, the CIA and its IT department were unprepared for the intense change that was to come. (See "Inside the CIA's Extreme Technology Makeover, Part 1" to read the first part in our series.)

"We were not on the right path"

To understand just how unlikely it is that CIA employees know what a wiki is, let alone rely on the technology to support its global mission, it's useful to know where the CIA and its IT department have been in the past.

Established in 1947, the CIA's mission has been to conduct clandestine operations on foreign nations, collecting critical national security information, then analyze and synthesize the data points, and deliver intelligence to the president, military leaders and other policy makers. For most of its existence, the CIA was wildly focused on spying on the former Soviet Union and combating communism—with varying degrees of success.

Al Tarasiuk
CIA CIO Al Tarasiuk

"I came in in the mid-'80s, during a period of time when the agency was very focused on big, covert actions," recalls CIA CIO Al Tarasiuk, who spent time overseas in Africa. "That was one of my first jobs in the agency, supporting that stuff from an IT perspective. I kind of had that in my blood."

IT operations at the time were principally housed in the Office of Communications, or "Commo." The main method of communication was through cable messaging, which had been used since World War II and offered "command and control" security, Tarasiuk says. IT "was mainly focused on getting those HF [high frequency] circuits tuned up right so that you could pass enough of those messages," he recalls. "They were just text-based, very simple stuff. But very important for operations."

The fall of the Soviet Union and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall were cataclysmic events for CIA: The enemy suddenly was not there anymore. "There was kind of a downtime when some of us sensed, where are we going as an organization?" Tarasiuk recalls. The inevitable downsizing and budget cuts soon followed. "Being in the IT world that was apart of the larger support element here, we got hit really, really hard," he says, "down to the point where our global infrastructure was very fragile."

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