Inside the CIA's Extreme Technology Makeover, Part 1

Al Tarasiuk, the CIA's CIO, is on a mission to modernize the agency's IT practices and connections to the intelligence community. It's just like any other IT-business alignment project, except that he has to get disparate departments to share data while supporting the White House's war on terror.


It's not often that a media organization is invited down to the Central Intelligence Agency's furtive headquarters in Langley, Va. But that's exactly what the CIA offered CIO: a rare, exclusive look inside the CIA's IT-driven transformation, led by CIO Al Tarasiuk. In his first-ever media interview, Tarasiuk detailed the CIA's dire need for organizational change and how IT is aiding in the CIA's post-9/11 mission.

CIA seal

CIO also had unprecedented access to other active-duty CIA employees. One senior IT employee offered a glimpse into the life of a well-traveled CIA IT staffer and his unique career serving in faraway lands and in at least one war zone. A senior officer in the CIA's National Clandestine Service—the spies—detailed what IT can and, more important, cannot do for the CIA.

Over the course of a two-hour interview and several follow-up conversations, Tarasiuk offered an unclassified report on how Web 2.0 technologies, agile project management and strong IT governance are enabling the CIA to share more information inside the enigmatic, controversial agency and collaborate more effectively with its 15 intelligence agency peers.

"The system was blinking red"

You don't just walk into the Central Intelligence Agency to interview its CIO, as you might with some other CIO, at some other company, in some other nondescript office park.

The drive down Rte. 123 through the woodsy and warm Northern Virginia suburbs on this June morning is surprisingly tranquil. And then, just before you turn in to the George H.W. Bush Center for Intelligence, you remember that at this stoplight, in 1993, a Pakistani man named Mir Aimal Kasi fired his AK-47 into a line of waiting cars, killing two CIA employees and wounding three others. And, once you pass through the security checkpoint, that these CIA employees you drive by have colleagues who are hunkered down somewhere in Afghanistan or Iraq or wherever else CIA spies and IT support staff are gathering intelligence for the White House and Pentagon.

Security for visitors is frequent and tight. Your name? Your contact here? Your Social Security number? Your cell phone, please? But then, there is Al Tarasiuk, in a sizable, comfy seventh-floor corner office with a sprawling view, flanked by two public-affairs people and his chief of staff. By looks—he is 50 years old, tall and dressed in a conservative shirt and tie—he could be the CIO of any large multinational. On his bookshelf sit The Big Switch, The New CIO Leader, Enterprise Architecture As Strategy, among other titles.

Al Tarasiuk
CIA CIO Al Tarasiuk

Nearly three years into his term as CIO, one of Tarasiuk's most critical duties has been, in fact, to infuse more corporate-like thinking into the CIA's IT operations and staff. "My boss," Tarasiuk says of CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden, "asked me to establish 'corporate everything' for IT—to the extent possible."

But then, just as easily as Tarasiuk discusses agile development and SOA and IT governance—typical CIO stuff—he solemnly switches to the harsh realities of his particular line of business. When asked about information-sharing failures surrounding 9/11, he chafes a little. "I won't comment on how we got to 9/11," he says, "but I can comment on how we've improved since that."

He's well aware of what's contained in documents such as the "9/11 Commission Report," the "The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004" and the "Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction": namely, that all point to a dire need for the 16 government intelligence agencies to cease long-standing turf wars and tear down internal and external information silos—all in an effort to share critical intelligence more openly and avoid the costly and deadly mistakes of the past.

The 9/11 report found that during the spring and summer of 2001, U.S. intelligence agencies received a stream of warnings that al-Qaeda had planned "something very, very, very big." The CIA director at the time, George Tenet, told the 9/11 Commission, "The system was blinking red."

Since 9/11, the CIA's mission has been to support President Bush's prosecution of the "global war on terror," and it has escalated the agency's need for first-rate intelligence, enterprisewide data sharing and agile IT systems on the back end.

In Tarasiuk's office, two black-and-white framed images of the 9/11 aftermath—the charred remains of the World Trade Center and the disfigured Pentagon—stand out among other photos on a bookshelf. When asked if they help him not forget the CIA's current mission, he says that he can never forget. "Everyone in this building believes we are at war," he says, "and that's the pace we operate at every day."

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