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CIA grappling with its role amid IT revolution

By Dan Verton

(IDG) -- Unless the CIA can find a way to tap into the IT revolution taking place in the private sector, it runs the risk of becoming an irrelevant player in the major national security policy debates of the future, according to an internal agency memo made public this week.

"I worry that the agency could see its usefulness diminish over time," wrote former CIA Inspector General L. Britt Snider in a farewell letter to agency officials before his retirement in January. "I believe the continued ability of the agency to add value will be largely a function of its ability to harness the technological advances being made in the private sector to its tasks," he said.

The major challenge facing the CIA, according to Snider, is the increasing ability of CIA customers, primarily the White House and the National Security Council, to use IT to collect, sort and manipulate information of intelligence value on their own. INFOCENTER
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The CIA is no longer the only game in town, warned Snider, and it must prove that the information it collects and analyzes is unique among the dozen other intelligence agencies comprising the U.S. intelligence community, he said.

"Unless we are able to provide unique and important information from clandestine sources, and unless we can gather, sort and analyze information in a way that provides customers with timely and unique information and insights bearing on the problems they face, our ability to influence the decision-making process is apt to erode over time," he wrote.

The CIA has taken steps during the past two years to address many of Snider's concerns, including the launch in 1999 of In-Q-Tel Inc., a private venture capital IT research firm. A report by Rebecca R. Donegan, the CIA's acting inspector general, on the progress and value of the In-Q-Tel endeavor is scheduled to be released by the end of this month.

In his letter, Snider said In-Q-Tel remains in its infancy and its probability of success is uncertain. However, In-Q-Tel's ability to turn private-sector technology research into valuable intelligence gathering and analysis tools is so crucial to the future of the agency that "it simply has to succeed," he said.

When asked how he thinks his firm will fare in the upcoming study, In-Q-Tel CEO Gilman Louie declined to comment. "As with all reports, we won't know until they are finished," he said.

Meanwhile, Lawrence Gershwin, the CIA's top advisor on science and technology, this week told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that the agency has no way of predicting major cyberattacks against the nation's critical infrastructure (see story). Despite its failure to predict the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the CIA has a long track record of foretelling major world events that could impact U.S. national security. However, the fast pace of technology development and Internet attack tools is outstripping the agency's ability to foresee major cyberincidents, he said.

These lessons haven't been lost on some of the agency's former directors, who on May 23 attended a conference on the future of the CIA sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. All four former CIA chiefs in attendance -- Adm. Stansfield Turner, William H. Webster, James Woolsey and John Deutch -- agreed that despite new threats and challenges presented by the IT revolution, stealing secrets remains the agency's core competency.

The CIA has a "unique responsibility to steal secrets," said Woolsey, who led CIA from 1993 to 1995. "That is absolutely timeless."

Stansfield Turner, who served as director of the CIA in the Carter administration, disagreed that the modern age has turned the agency on its head. "I think we overstate the idea that the function of intelligence has changed since the end of the Cold War," said Turner. The most fundamental issue facing the intelligence community is determining the role of the CIA director and giving that person the authority to direct the community, he said.

However, John Deutch, who served as head of the CIA in the Clinton administration, said new threats like cyberwarfare have erased the line between law enforcement and national security issues. Those distinctions "simply don't make sense" anymore, he said. "The circumstances have changed so significantly ... that we really ought to rethink the entire business from the ground up."

Central Intelligence Agency

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