Log onto the CIA website (www.cia.gov), and netsurfers are warned up-front that their visit to the Agency will be monitored. No surprise there.

What is a bit surprising is that kids are invited to trot onto the Children's CIA Homepage, where a rather ominous entry site announces The Kid's Secret Zone, and a "notice to parents" explains the monitoring business. As it turns out, the site is more a classroom plod than a spin through a wilderness of mirrors -- it lures you on with the intriguing prospect of learning all there is to know about spy-work, but it proves to be more interested in pedantic definitions of "intelligence."

What is intelligence, after all? "This question is not easy to answer," the CIA tells kids, "and, depending on who you ask, you may get different answers. But most people agree that intelligence is information needed by our nation's leaders, also known as policy makers, to keep our country safe. Policy makers, like the President, do not have time to read all the other countries' newspapers . . . there are just too many of them. Also, there is information that other countries will not share with the United States, called secrets. All this information is very important to our nation's leaders."

Information in newspapers? Policy makers like the President? But more to the point: Does the CIA really think that a kid logging on does not know the meaning of "secrets"? The note to parents also explains the half-hearted spirit of this branch of the website: It seems a presidential memo issued on April 18, 1997, demanded that the heads of all "Executive Departments and Agencies" of the U.S. government expand their services for children, teachers and parents. Wow. That's a tough one for an institution that's there to ferret out other people's business, not the other way around. The Kid Zone makes it clear they're wriggling.

Sleuthing through the "adult" site confirms the discomfort: Beyond a pie-chart that illustrates the structure of the intelligence community and short, dry write-ups on each department, what is offered the casual browser is scant. No bibliography of great books on the subject, alas. You can, it seems, apply for a job. And you can, under the Freedom of Information Act, access some of the CIA document collection,but until the Agency updates its website capability, this last is a scattershot enterprise. Let us hope that if the CIA is not busily modernizing files for Internet use, it's because it is pressing all its fancy gadgetry into really important work: i.e., assiduously tracking terrorist thugs.

Nevertheless, let us also hope for some immediate improvements: There is something terrifying about having your CIA searches constantly countered by: "Warning. You have performed an illegal operation and will be shut down immediately."

Eek.