Creating a classified cloud for spies
The architects: Kelly Miller, NSA; Jeanne Tsinger, CIA; Grant Schneider, DIA; Al Tarasiuk, ODNI; Jill Tummler Singer, NRO; Keith E. Littlefield, NGA
March 28th, 2012
03:00 AM ET

Creating a classified cloud for spies

By Suzanne Kelly

The Intelligence Community (IC) is undergoing its biggest technological change ever as a team of hundreds works to build a computer system that links together nearly all of the 17 intelligence entities through a series of classified servers. To call it an ambitious project might be an understatement. The architects of the undertaking aim to get an initial version going by the end of the year.

The chief information officers at the most prominent agencies of the Intelligence Community were assigned the mission last summer when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper began to brace for budget cuts that would hit the community hard. For the first time in a decade, the IC would be forced to downsize under the strain of a budget that could no longer maintain the expansive growth the community had experienced since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

By last fall, Clapper was paraphrasing a favorite quote by a New Zealand physicist Earnest Rutherford who, in the midst of his own country's budget deliberations in 1927, said, “We’re running out of money so we must begin to think.”

Clapper had heard talk for years about inefficiencies in the community's information technology system. Each of the agencies relied on their own IT systems - problematic for information sharing, but comforting for information security. The traditional thinking seemed to be that the tighter the hold on the information, the easier it was to keep secure. When the budget issue presented itself, Clapper saw an opportunity.

"It was sort of a perfect storm kind of thing," said Clapper, who had kept an eye on cloud computing technology and came to realize that getting the agencies aboard a single cloud might yield not just significant cost savings over time but also information sharing benefits in the shorter term.

What is a Classified Cloud?

The idea of putting the country's sensitive intelligence information in a cloud may not sound all that safe since top intelligence and law enforcement officials have warned that the cyber threat facing the nation may surpass the threat of terrorism. To understand the risk, you have to understand the cloud concept.

Imagine the Internet as essentially a wide array of servers located in various locations around the world. They talk to each other, and they can store data. A cloud is where that data lives.

Businesses and individuals can opt to store information on those vast servers because it’s less of an information load than on their local servers. For a business, it means being able to run complicated programs without having to pay for the expensive technology needed to run them. It's kind of like renting the space.

The CIA has been using cloud technology for years, but there's a key difference between public servers and the Intelligence Community's cloud. In the IC, the cloud does not live on a public server. The challenge until now was figuring out how to facilitate and make the community's clouds interoperable. The model that the community is now moving toward tasks the individual agencies to act as a service provider to the rest of the community, essentially, creating their own IT support structure. This is a closed cloud concept. The hope is that by making the cloud internal to the IC only, it will mitigate the risk of intruders accessing sensitive or classified information.

Still, Clapper knew that selling such a concept across intelligence agencies that pride themselves on independence would require a different skill set entirely.

The Man for the Job

Getting all of the agencies on board with any initiative can be tricky. Clapper needed someone who would walk in the door with credibility. He turned to his principal deputy, Stephanie O'Sullivan, who herself hailed from the most protective of the intelligence agencies, the CIA. Years earlier, O'Sullivan had met Al Tarasiuk, who as CIA’s chief information officer for five years. He was on assignment in Europe when O'Sullivan called.

Tarasiuk's new mission: to sell IC leaders on an initiative requiring them to surrender a measure of their independence.
He says he knew what challenges were ahead.

"It's about enabling integration and enabling information sharing," Tarasiuk said. "The big cultural change is that we agreed to a new business model on how we would manage this."

Three months into execution, there have been hundreds involved in the effort. Their ultimate mission will also require the creation of a single desktop software program shared across the community. When analysts or operators or engineers log on to their computer, they will have the same set of tools at their fingertips.

It's kind of like a super secret version of social media that the architects are hoping will enable missions that now take months to plan to be done in a matter of minutes. But with reward, comes risk.

Risk and Reward

Intelligence operatives are used to taking risk. Less so, perhaps, are the analysts.

A recent study by the non-profit Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) took a hard look at the way the community is to implement the cloud concept. INSA researchers specifically looked at recent mission failures and determined that many were caused either by the way intelligence information had been compartmentalized into 'data silos', or the way people had been managing documents.

"In most cases," the INSA report said, "the critical piece of information necessary for mission success was already possessed. The failure was not in obtaining the information but in locating and applying it to the mission."

In a case like that, the cloud - and more importantly the bigger IT infrastructure change - could really help improve efficiencies if it works the way it is intended.

But there are other, more significant risks to consider as the transformation develops over the next several years. Tarasiuk says he's aware of the challenges.

"We accepted some risk in moving out very quickly," he said.

He won't talk in detail about those risks, but does point out that the Director of the Cyber Command, General Keith Alexander, calls this a more defensible infrastructure. The idea being, if there is only one door into a house, that door is far easier to not only monitor, but to also protect. He also argues that with the new infrastructure, once a problem is detected, it's easier to address.

"When it's centralized you can implement patches," Tarasiuk said. "If you have a malware issue, a vendor comes out and says, 'Hey, we've got a code problem here,, and they do a patch right away. Today, (in the IC) the way we have to do a patch, is its’ distributed to every agency. They do it on their own; we're not involved."

There are some increased risks that Tarasiuk won't talk about but the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has identified.

On Tuesday, the GAO released a report identifying what it called key supply chain-related threats that included the installation of defective hardware or software; counterfeit hardware or software; the intentional installation of intentionally harmful hardware or software; the failure of critical products; and the reliance on malicious or unqualified service providers for technical support issues.

By setting up its own IT force inside the IC, that last one might be mitigated. But all are concerns that the architects say they have considered.

Of course, there is one threat that may be far harder to mitigate.

The Bad Actor Scenario

Even a trusted insider with appropriate clearances can become a risk.

A 'bad actor' as they are called, or a person who spies on his or her own country could theoretically have a field day with the new system. It's a nightmare scenario for the architects.

One need only look at the WikiLeaks disaster that the military says involved just one person accessing data and passing it along to the whistleblower website – which then published sensitive government cables.

"Insider threat is always something that we watch," Tarasiuk said. "I know that private companies are very worried about the same kind of issues, and we have ways to deal with that. I think we as a government have to be sure that we put a lot of emphasis on safeguarding."

The architects hope to help mitigate that risk by tagging data. The NSA already does it. It takes note of who accesses what data, and perhaps more importantly, what they do with it. Tagging the data is critical to keeping the cloud and the new architecture safe.

"We're also tagging people," Tarasiuk said. "When they authenticate themselves into the system, very much like we do today, the system will recognize that they have certain attributes and will allow them to see certain data."

Richard "Dickie" George spent 41 years at the National Security Agency. He now works as a senior cyber expert at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which works on government projects. George says you have to be careful who is allowed to see what when you're offering a view of the cloud.

"We have authorities to deal with different information. So if you're putting it in a big cloud, you really have to be extremely careful," he said.

George cites legal requirements that control who is allowed to see what, and the challenge of keeping that straight in a cloud architecture.

"It makes it easier to share because everybody has access to more information," George said. "You have to be careful that people don't inadvertently gain access to information they aren't supposed to have and that data tagging - that labeling of information to ensure that only people with the proper authorities have access to it - that's a critical part of the game."

But as the man tasked to get this done, Tarasiuk has one more concern.

"My biggest worry is that we sold the big picture," he said. "Theoretically it’s great. But now it’s making those things work together on the scale we are talking about. So I have a little fear on the technology side. Not that we can't do it, but that it will take a little longer than we think it should."

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  7. Dave

    It is not a hard concept to implement. You have to make it easy enough to understand, yet be secure, and allow informaiton sharing. Look at the National Emergency Management Information System. Simple design that works and can connect so many different facets of the Federal, State, and Local Governments that works fairly well. Could use improvements in that system, but you can model it similar to that. You really need to hire the best computer hackers in the business and pay them very well to ensure security of the information. Of course, they need to be monitored by the best the government has, however, with the threat of treason and the death penalty, they can use the hackers to their advantage. Why wouldn't we do something like that??? Money? Yeah, how much does a leak cost in terms of lives? Well worth the cost. If I were the President, all agencies will be integrated into the cloud to share info and the first Director of whatever agency that balks or doesn't want to do it, fire him right away and if anyone else has a problem with the concept, fire them too! You can make it happen if you are the head dude in charge. If they won't do it voluntarily, they will do it by fear of losing their jobs. Just fire a bunch of them, and the President can do it, until you find people willing to take up the task and do it the right way. Can't Bill Gates design us a system to do what we want? I don't see why not? He has probably the best and most capable systems and the people that can implement the design. It is not that hard to do. While I can't build the database cloud, I have designed several and determined what I wanted in terms of information out of it and they were very, very successful. I know it can be done and wonder why it is so hard for our public servants to just get it done. Sad, but if some of them lost their jobs, maybe ....... something might get done????? One can but hope!!!

    May 5, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Reply
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  8. John Weiler, IT-AAC Vice Chairman

    This goal is not new to the IC, with similar efforts failing since 1996 due to repeated failure patterns associated with culture, acquisition processes and contractor rice bowls. Departing Joint Staff Vice General Cartwright and Fed CIO Vivek Kundra called out the big defense contractors as an IT Cartel, that drove up costs, rarely delivered, and prevented the adoption of commercial best practices. A Federal Times did a follow on study looking at what companies controlled the IT Acquisition Process across DOD and the IC, finding the Mitre Corporation #1, followed by BAH, SAIC and NGC. With 84% failure rates of IT programs since 9/11, we have a situation that cannot continue.

    March 31, 2012 at 8:48 am | Reply
    • James R

      Pls do everyone in a tall building a favor, just say that the IC is transisitioning to the Cloud, but dont do it, wait a year and see the massive attacks and FOIA from CNN and every world news network that will be banging on your virtual door.
      Let this play out like a virual war game but the attackers will be every 15 year old idiot savant that can write code that will massing at gate , looking to knock down the tall buildings we live in. With all due respect pls dont do it in the name of budget cutbacks, Think about thinking

      March 31, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Reply
  9. Attila, The Hun

    Another government boondongle. Look at what has been happening at the FBI for years, hundreds of millions spent and still no workable case management system. That system was trivial compares to what these people are talking about.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Reply
  10. Goat roper

    In China we eat poop.

    March 29, 2012 at 5:42 am | Reply
    • NODAT1

      Ah McDonolds we have them here also

      March 29, 2012 at 8:00 am | Reply
  11. Bubba Snitz

    I just have to say that I can't think of much that is dumber than putting the entire US intelligence community information into a hacker vulnurable cloud. Lot's of luck, guys, and it won't be long before I'll be reading your stuff on Wikileaks.

    March 29, 2012 at 12:09 am | Reply
  12. killallthewhiteman

    A classified cloud for spies that CNN is reporting on.

    March 28, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Reply
  13. NODAT1

    welcome to the cloud where all your information is vieved by hords of Chineese intell worker

    March 28, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Reply
  14. Chinese propaganda stinks

    To hell with political correctness. Anyone with family in china doesnt need to come anywhere near our advanced technology. They want to be tribal people so be it. We will act accordingly.

    March 28, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  15. Chinese propaganda stinks


    There are news stories about ungrateful people here helping a fascist dictatorship because they've been conditioned to see their race as being a nationality. When the two things are not at all the same. By that logic, russians and americans are the same.

    March 28, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Reply
    • rfielding

      All of our electronic technology is from TheChinese because some smart people thought that it's better to outsource everything to get prices down; a problem we continue to feed. (And we use MS Windows everywhere because it's so convenient; a whole different issue.) In any case, the wikileak guy was an American guy who seemed to have an issue with what he was doing for a living. Who is "Chinese" enough to be a problem? By race, birth, parentage, marriage, gadget ownership, etc. What happens when the 'face of risk' changes (African, Muslim, WhiteSupemacist, Israeli, etc) and you have already hired all your best people? Deep and widespread secrecy will not fly in an age where every man/woman/child/populatedArea is surrounded by camera and microphone bearing networked gadgets 24 hours a day. If an information leak will cause a disaster, then that's a lot of the problem to be solved; because jailing people only happens after it's too late, guessing who will leak is probabilistic (where almost every individual has a small value – see Bayesian probability paradoxes), and it underestimates the ability of people to piece together information from the outside. All the technologies being used to invade people's privacy via network wire taps, Big Data munchers, tiny cameras and recorders will eventually get into the hands of everyone; and that's when every government in the world has Big Brother starting to complain about Little Brother.

      So, if there ends up being a gigantic Hadoop cluster (google "Accumulo") for intelligence agencies, then it ends up being a choice much like the one that BinLaden faced: to spend months waiting on couriers, or communicate in seconds with the risks that come with using technology. And surely it will be tiered so that not EVERYTHING is in the cloud. But there has to be enough in a common cloud so that the agencies can function as a unit in the places where it has to.

      March 29, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Reply
  16. zapnost

    During WW2 a great advantage we had over Japan is that their navy captains followed a single unified doctrine. Once our commanders figured out what a particular skipper would do in any particular situation, they could then apply the knowledge to every other skipper. Our navy had a different doctrine. Each American skipper was king of his boat and no two were alike – a huge strategic advantage. Separation of assets – a "cell" mentality – is the most sure way to ensure security. The hackers and terrorists have figured this out, it is mind boggling that we have not.

    The idea to link all our intelligence agencies onto one system is so shortsighted one may be tempted to look no further than it's authors to find the rouge operators. It is never a question of if a computer system will be breached, but when. That there are spies embedded in our agencies is a given – a reality of the game. This is a recipe for total disaster. I really have a hard time actually believing our leaders could come up with this. Are we back to the Clintonian philosophy of deconstructionist bureaucrats running our agencies?

    March 28, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Reply
  17. X Info Sec Guy

    I can assure you that this system will protected by the best IDS (Intrusion Detection Systems), firewalls and the right minds to man it. There will be honey pots for all the little script kiddies to dip their fingers into. It will probably also be used to collect information about the real hackers out there that wanna have a go at it. The folks that wait months inbetween testing the security posture to see what the response is. The right data mining will be the key in protecting this network.

    March 28, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Reply
    • mike

      The issue isn't the security in place, but the people who use the systems. For some time now the weak link has been people and the use of various social engineering tools in order to gain access through exploits or trojans. Some of the latest tools help, but inconsistent adoption and deployment of said tools continues to create windows of opportunity for rogue agents to access sensitive systems and information.

      Security is not cheap.

      March 28, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Reply
    • Harry Tank

      I use to install the security infrastructure of these computer systems at these places. Don't kid yourself, the day to day security is not performed by PhDs. I've seen so much incompetent security administration that most people would cry if they knew. Using a cloud sounds sexy to politicians, and may seem like a panacea to the budget managers, but it just makes the system that much more complex and hence, more insecure.

      March 29, 2012 at 12:49 am | Reply
  18. Wayne

    Reblogged this on luvsiesous and commented:
    As the terrorist threat of taking down our internet grows, government chooses to protect the government, and chose not to protect the American people.

    OK, in fairness to them, they consider protecting them to mean protecting America. But, I still think they forgot to protect "we the PEOPLE."
    What do you think?
    Should the government spend billions protecting state secrets and not protecting America from cyber attack?

    March 28, 2012 at 4:43 am | Reply
    • Rik

      This concept should allow the Government agencies to better protect by sharing information, something that was not done in the past and allowed major threats to this country. Also "We the People" should protect ourselves on the internet and not rely on the Government to protect my ISP. I'm pretty sure that my little web page is not the target of a foreign cyber threat.

      March 28, 2012 at 10:09 am | Reply
      • Pyrate


        You may not think your little website is a target for foreign cyber threat, but you would be wrong. your website and so many others can be taken over and used as part of a much larger botnet, that can be used for a multitude of cyber attacks, including denial of service attacks. It can also be used as a shield to perform nefarious acts by hiding the perpetrators real IP address. Don't discount yourself because you feel that your website is small or insignificant. It isn't to the cyber criminal or worse, the cyber warrior.

        March 28, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
      • Wayne

        I would agree with you. Because in principle, that is the way it should be.

        But, you computer is attacked (probed) within 90 seconds of being turned on.


        March 28, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
      • mike

        Every web site and server owner/operator needs to take security seriously. Anyone accessing your site is placing a level of trust in your site, and failure to properly secure it places those people and potentially the companies they work for at risk.

        Anyone who has managed a firewall connected to the internet knows how quickly the "script kiddies" come knocking...followed by a never ending series of poking and prodding for exploits and vulnerabilities...

        March 28, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • mipolitic

      Wayne ; the people and the corporate systems are up to them to have an IT guy develop a shield , i think this is what the usa gov is simply doing , they are developing a shield for their entire system which is long over due. the leaks and hacks have been a wave of sand storms that has pitted the hardware with worm holes.

      the thing that concerns me is the abuse of the operator, to either retain info for personal gain , and that could have a range as far as the imagination can go , all emails and so on could be viewed and so on , the other concern that i have posted in the past on this topic is also mentioned in this report , is that of the operator could introduce something to the system in which could be a nightmare or use a personal device to record info .

      This may sound corny but the patriotism of all involved must be the core factor to the success of any security and also must be applied here.
      Just in my life time I have seen like so many of us the change in the world and the threat of a dark extremist idology raise its head around the world , this new enemy is without a state and uniform and yet it is becoming one of the most expensive wars fought. the growth of rouge states in techno devices is allowing them to conduct a proxy war on cyber space in many ways. however these ugly influences of these enemies are also mixing with social media and the freedom of speech protections of the free countries is being abused by these dark rouge nations .

      for example this is an election year and I like so many have views on politics and foreign policy , which could result in our views being ID as a risk to an operator on their personal views of politics that could result in someone being put on a watch list for no other reason than their views on politics in an election year. So we can quickly see the possible abuse that could occur on many levels , However the security of the USA and the West must take precedent to shield us from this onslaught of attacks and abuses of criminals such as anonymous and rouge countries and even possibly trading partners such as in asia .

      And so there must be an oversite monitor of both political views , { DEMOCRATS & REPUBLICANS } to approve an action of a person or group being put on the watch list. In other words patriotism first and politics secound or third or fourth to stop witch hunts of the 1950s and 1960s . TARGET THREATS NOT OPINIONS !

      I see a lot of hatred on social media sites that in my view should be addressed . THERE IS A HUGE RESPONSIBLITY ON THE SHOULDERS OF THE INTEL SERVICES AND I WISH THEM GOD's SPEED AND DISCERNMENT !

      March 28, 2012 at 10:12 am | Reply
      • Wayne

        I agree with what you are saying.

        The irony? There was no witch hunt in the 50's. The 'communists' were not communists, they were progressives.

        And they took over.

        So, watch your back if you think writing the word patriot hasn't placed you on a watch list.


        March 28, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
      • mipolitic

        TO; Wayne,

        Wayne i disagree with your respons to my above post , many , many , people and groups put on the FBI watch list of the 1950s , 1960s , were in fact commies and they were influenced by moscow , and i know this first hand as I had a relative that was involved in scattering a group founded in moscow that had crippled the frieght on the great lakes in Canada and the USA and the result of that is now known as the SIU , so twisted views of the past is in no way seen as responsible post.
        as we all know there were witch hunts that resulted unjust accusations and suspicions and name plating of people.
        the present cyber threat also enables the risk of internal failures , and since you say you agree with that , than just lets stay on point rather than political digs that are baseless. The threat of cyber attacks and the respons is the topic , not a political attack or dig in the form of a statement. this concerns all of us and it needs a unified respons without the bias of politics. and this is the standard i was pointing to in my above post.

        March 28, 2012 at 4:54 pm |

    the man for the job.

    March 28, 2012 at 3:26 am | Reply

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