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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The current director, J.M. "Mike" McConnell, is taking great pains to replace the "Need to know" culture with "Responsibility to provide" among the organizations. (The shift is significant because it replaces knowledge hoarding with knowledge sharing.)

"What's happening at the CIA is really representative of what's happening governmentwide, where you have a number of agencies with antiquated systems, and the challenges in front of them and the opportunities we have are requiring a lot more flexibility, speed and agility," says Lena Trudeau, a program director at the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), an independent Washington, D.C., government advisory group. Trudeau studies how collaborative technologies can help solve the U.S. government's complex problems, which "require [the government] to act in a different way than a lot of these legacy systems and processes allow."

Technology is a vital piece of the CIA's overall change, and Tarasiuk knows it. "IT is the lifeblood of this organization," he says. "I'm trying to eliminate the technology iron walls that have existed in the past" inside the agency. (For more on Tarasiuk, see "Who Is Al Tarasiuk?")

However, long-standing interagency rivalries (the FBI and CIA, for instance, have an intense mutual dislike and distrust) won't vanish overnight. Then there are the ongoing controversies, such as allegations that CIA officers tortured detainees and were involved in such activities at secret prisons, or "black sites," in foreign countries.

When asked how he keeps IT workers' focus on the mission at hand and not on CIA controversies, Tarasiuk says resolutely: "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. 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."

OHB CIA
CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia

And then there are the cultural differences—even inside the CIA—that are difficult to quell. "The big push to share is a much harder problem than anyone wants to admit," says Ken Orr, founder and principal researcher at The Ken Orr Institute, a business technology researcher. Orr is a former member of the National Research Council (NRC) committee, which has advised the FBI on technology projects in the past. (For more on the FBI, see "Why the G-Men Aren't IT Men.") "An enormous amount is semantics and language—in order to connect the dots, you've got to be talking about the same dots."

Tarasiuk says that he's been able to pull off as much this far because of the credibility he's earned over his 20-plus years at the CIA, leaning on the contacts he's made along the way, and, most important, the backing of Director Hayden. Like all CIOs worth their salt, however, he hasn't been afraid to make the tough decisions, like on new data-sharing policies. "If we can't come to consensus, I'm going to make the call," he says, "and in some cases it goes against what some want to do."

The CIA's in-progress extreme makeover, however, goes to show that if the IT department at The Company (as the CIA is known) can learn how to be agile and collaborative and open to new ideas—and still maintain national security—so can the IT department at your company.

Tarasiuk knows full well where he's come from and what challenges still lie ahead. "We're in a transformation," he says. "It's huge, but it's only the beginning of what's happening."

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

See Part 4 (8/7/08): The CIA's efforts to use new applications and Web 2.0 technologies

Also see (8/6/08): "What It's Like to Work Overseas for the CIA's IT Group"

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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