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.

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"To be seen an as enabler of mission"

Since taking over the CIO reins in fall 2005, Tarasiuk's own mission has focused on the corporatization of CIA IT—which is no small feat. Severe security requirements, national security concerns and a culture where spying and deception are just part of the business add a whole other layer of complexity to attaining true business-IT alignment.

For many years, IT was not seen as a strategic enabler to CIA's success, say CIA employees. Spies in the field didn't think they needed IT, and the analysts trying to make sense of the spies' intelligence had to get by with antiquated data-management systems. Technology was "a threat, not a benefit," noted one CIA researcher in 2002. And "cylinders of excellence"—meaning data silos—were ever-present.

Tarasiuk has, so far, opened up the 61-year-old insular spy agency to the concept of more efficient and effective information sharing by using Web 2.0 technologies, such as the CIA's Wikipedia-like Intellipedia that's used across the U.S. intelligence community. Another sign of change is a grassroots, Web-based collaboration among Russian intelligence experts at several U.S. agencies, which enables analysts to securely share their insights, analysis and information on breaking news on Russia.

Tarasiuk has instituted a new IT governance team that has—for the first time—the highest level of management support at the agency. His team has also moved completely to agile project management methodologies, virtualized 1,000 servers that are projected to save $18 million in 2008, and empowered frontline CIA employees to ask for, decide on and employ new IT tools.

In 2007, Tarasiuk's team was finally able to the replace the CIA's main information-handling system, which was severely outdated and lacked the basic functionalities found in 1990s-era e-mail systems, with a more modern and user-friendly system called Trident.

In the process, Tarasiuk has tried to revitalize IT's image within CIA to match what's necessary today, "to be seen an as enabler of mission and not just a technology shop that's delivering a desktop," he says.

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

His message of IT-driven change and business-not-as-usual has permeated CIA. "Al said that the new priority is setting deadlines and meeting goals," says Ken Westbrook, chief of business information strategy in the intelligence directorate (the CIA employees who analyze intelligence and write reports). Westbrook's new liaison role, working on managing the IT portfolio for the analysts, is one piece of the CIA's overhaul of the business-IT relationship. "Now we've got to deliver on time and on budget. I give Al a lot of credit for making that happen."

"To eliminate the technology iron walls"

Tarasiuk has driven change inside the CIA's IT operations and won notice for his efforts. But that is not to say everything now is perfect—or close to finished. After all, demand for all this change—more information sharing between and inside agencies that frees previously firewalled intelligence from fragmented silos and thousands of databases—was forced on the CIA and other agencies by the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) in 2004, to oversee all 16 government intelligence organizations.

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