by Thomas Wailgum

What It’s Like to Work Overseas for the CIA’s IT Group

Aug 06, 20084 mins
IT Leadership

At the Central Intelligence Agency, many IT staffers have to go where the mission goes. And that means Iraq, Afghanistan and any other locale on the planet that needs a do-it-all tech guru.

“I have a million stories to tell,” says the senior CIA IT person, staring at me through the CIA’s videoconferencing system. Unfortunately, he can’t share any with me. (He cites national security reasons, of course.)

His name? Sorry, but no. His location? Can’t say that either.

CIA seal

What the active-duty senior communications officer does disclose, however, are the vagaries of a 23-year career in the CIA’s IT organization—an itinerant, exciting and dangerous life in “a number of overseas positions” and in at least one war zone, he says.

A subset of the CIA’s IT workforce is principally devoted to working in overseas locations, and they move around every three years, says the CIA’s CIO, Al Tarasiuk. Tarasiuk himself did a tour with the CIA’s National Clandestine Service—the spy organization—in Africa back in the day. (See “Who Is Al Tarasiuk?” for more on him.) Paraphrasing the CIA’s mission statement, Tarasiuk says that IT staffers (IT is also called “Commo” for Global Communications Services) “are part of the national security structure: We go where others cannot go, where others don’t. That’s the Commo culture that is inherent in the IT workforce. First in, last out.”

So when a conflict breaks out in a country like Afghanistan, and CIA “ops” people are sent into “bad spots,” as Tarasiuk says, riding alongside are Commo staffers. “Prior to the [Iraq] war there were bad spots, and during the war there are plenty of bad spots,” he says. “We maintain the infrastructure there, and manage and provide all the IT services on the ground.” Life overseas can be rough, and it takes a certain type of person to thrive in war zones or foreign nations in tumult. “The days of the white socks and pocket protectors are behind us,” Tarasiuk says.

Via videoconference, the senior communications officer looks and talks like he could work at any corporate IT shop: He’s pleasant, wears glasses and seems plenty knowledgeable. But you can tell he’s seen a lot more than most techies. He describes the necessity of being not just someone who can diagnose problems on a PC or LAN, but also a person who can fix a generator. “Virtually anything that’s related to technology,” he says.

Versatility a Must When Working for the Agency

As to the personal traits it takes to survive, this senior IT officer uses words like versatile and agile. “Resiliency and energy are important,” he says. “In a war theater, it takes willpower to deal with people [because] the primary job is customer service to agency comrades in field who are shaking the bushes.” Months away from families, toiling away at a station half way around the globe, are routine.

Day-to-day life is anything but routine, however. “No two days are ever really the same,” he says. At one time he can be troubleshooting a LAN transmission system and another he’ll be called to an ambassador’s residence to assist on some tech problem. “But you can be pulled away to do HVAC stuff too,” he adds.

Overseas Commo workers used to come, primarily, from the military (due to the need for people with Morse code and cable messaging experience). In addition to still drawing from the military, many of those IT staffers now come straight out of colleges or technical schools. Highly specialized training lasts 25 weeks. “It takes a very determined mind-set to work overseas,” Tarasiuk says.

The senior communications officer says that the travel has been one of the best parts of his varied set of experiences. “I’ve seen quite a bit of the world,” he says. As to whether he’d ever move into a comfy private-sector job, he demurs. Too many “interesting experiences,” he says. With a laugh, he notes that because he’s had a lot of close calls in dangerous places, “some folks won’t travel with me.”

See Part 1 (8/4/08): A business-IT alignment project like few others

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