CIA lags behind in IT stakes

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has come under fire for failing to move with the times in terms of information...

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has come under fire for failing to move with the times in terms of information technology.

An unclassified report, entitled Failing to Keep Up with the Information Revolution, offers a withering assessment of the CIA's use of IT for intelligence analysis, calling the agency's networking and information-searching capabilities "primitive" and saying that the CIA's emphasis on secrecy fundamentally discourages IT use and adoption by CIA analysts.

The study's author, Bruce Berkowitz, interviewed almost 100 CIA employees involved in producing national security analysis, including intelligence analysts, technicians and managers regarding their work and use of technology, soliciting their ideas for using IT more effectively.

Berkowitz served as scholar-in-residence at the CIA's Sherman Kent Center for Intelligence Analysis in 2001 and 2002, the period covered by the study, and is a former CIA employee and now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

The report appeared in the most recent edition of the intelligence community publication "Studies in Intelligence" and is posted on the CIA website.

Among other problems, Berkowitz found that CIA analysts must bounce between multiple, isolated systems to gather information, including separate systems on each desk for accessing the CIA's classified network and using the public internet.

Analysts have no easy way to share classified information with authorised intelligence personnel outside of the CIA or access information stored in other classified information networks within the government, such as those at the US Department of Defense.

"The result is that analysts work in an IT environment that is largely isolated from the outside world. If they need to do work that is classified in any way, there is virtually no alternative other than to use the CIA's own, restricted system," the report said.

Contrary to popular depictions of CIA agents using cutting edge information gathering technology, Berkowitz found that analysts lack access to even the most common information searching technology, such as web-based search engines, for conducting intelligence analysis, relying largely on a 1970s-era database called Ciras (Corporate Information Retrieval and Storage).

While a lack of government funding is partially to blame for the slow rate of new technology adoption within the agency, it is not the primary source of the CIA's troubles, Berkowitz said.

Instead, he put most of the blame on the CIA's obsession with security, which he charges with creating an approach of "risk exclusion" as opposed to a "risk management" regarding technology adoption.

Berkowitz noted that Palm Pilots were forbidden in CIA facilities until recently, and it took the agency years to get internet access to analysts' desktops.

Like the CIA, private companies and other government agencies also have a need to protect information and intellectual property, but have found ways to do so without hampering their ability to take advantage of new technology.

Berkowitz estimated that analysts are, on average, five years behind their counterparts in the private sector and other agencies in terms of their knowledge of IT and services.

Even more corrosive, however, is the implicit message such policies send to analysts: that information technology is dangerous and not essential for intelligence analysis, Berkowitz said.

He found that the lack of up-to-date IT for information analysis and dissemination also effects the CIA's relationship with its "customers" - the consumers of intelligence within the US government, Berkowitz found.

The agency's tradition of applying multiple layers of managerial review to each item of intelligence is out of step with the changes wrought by the internet and the expectations of information consumers, the report said.

Better technology could enable CIA analysts to communicate directly with intelligence information consumers in the government through web pages or other secure network channels, rather than going through several layers of bureaucracy.

Berkowitz recommended a host of changes, starting with integrated desktop environments that enable analysts to move easily between databases and resources on classified and nonclassified networks.

Other suggestions include implementing "simple IT" such as Google-style appliances to search through their intelligence files, and a task-tracking system to manage assignments.

Longer-term solutions could include creating IT "Swat teams" to develop specialised information capture and analysis tools and "mod squads" of younger analysts to think up new ways to use IT for intelligence analysis, Berkowitz suggested.

Paul Roberts writes for IDG News Service

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