FAS | Government Secrecy | December 2000 News ||| Index | Search | Join FAS

December 1, 2000

Disaster of the Day: The CIA

By Arik Hesseldahl

CIA spies swap gossip and complain about the boss the same way office workers all over the world do.

But because some of them did it using a secret chat room on the agency computer system that is hidden from management, they lost their jobs. It's another embarrassing black eye for an agency that has already had its share of problems concerning computer security breaches, and more evidence that the agency is badly in need of a top-down review of internal computer security procedures.

Capping an investigation that involved 160 CIA employees, and concerned activities that date back to the mid-1980s, the agency took the unusual step yesterday of issuing a press release saying it had fired four people and suspended ten others for running an unauthorized chat room and databases on the agency's computer network.

Apparently it wasn't the content of the messages that was the problem, but rather their unauthorized nature.

``What apparently began as entirely innocent communications now has serious consequences for the employees involved,'' says Steve Aftergood, an intelligence analyst with Federation of American Scientists in Washington. ``The CIA can't permit any unauthorized communications within its own computer systems. It's just intolerable.''

The firings are taking place against the backdrop of the agency's recent problems with former CIA director John M. Deutch. Just Nov. 29, a report by the U.S. Department of Defense's Inspector General blasted Deutch for ``particularly egregious'' violations of security protocol involving his doing classified work on an unsecured home computer, while serving in DOD posts in 1993 and 1995. An investigation into similar practices by Deutch while director of the CIA cost him his security clearance last year.

There's also the case of the former Los Alamos nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee who was fired for security violations in 1999 that involved his role in the improper copying of classified information from government computers. This lead to his indictment and arrest on 59 charges of mishandling classified information, which he was later freed after pleading guilty to one count of illegally copying classified information.

Aftergood says the Deutch and Lee cases, as well as those of the chatty CIA employees, are politically interconnected.

``Because of the Lee case, there was pressure to clamp down on Deutch. Because of Deutch, there was pressure to clamp down on other security violations,'' Aftergood says. ``They're not in the habit of issuing press releases about the agency's internal administrative practices. They sent it out to serve a political objective, as if to say, 'Look how vigilant we are.'''

But how vigilant can the CIA really be if the offending activity was taking place for more than a decade without being discovered?

While it's still the inspiration for many a spy movie, this incident weakens the CIA's tough-as-nails appearance. As in any workplace, people there apparently have the same human tendencies to gossip, gripe and goof off.

Copyright 2000 Forbes.com

FAS | Government Secrecy | December 2000 News ||| Index | Search | Join FAS