Why the CIA is having such a hard time keeping its best
Three top-drawer commissions, ranking members of both parties in Congress, and President Bush all agreed that Washington needed to dramatically improve and expand its human intelligence-gathering abilities--in layman's terms, putting more spies on the ground. But more than four years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Central Intelligence Agency, current and former intelligence officials say, is nowhere near to achieving that goal. After bearing the brunt of the criticism for the intelligence failures on 9/11 and for blowing the analysis on Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction, the agency has been buffeted further by more recent allegations of torture and mishandling of detainees under its control.
Now a new CIA director appears to be at loggerheads with many of the agency's most experienced operatives, who feel they are being disregarded and mismanaged. On top of that is a widely held perception of a deep political rift between the career professionals at the agency and the White House. (One anecdote suggests how bad things have gotten. Two years ago, the CIA's Baghdad station chief wrote a darkly pessimistic assessment of the situation in Iraq, projecting the possible growth of the insurgency. When President Bush was briefed on the station chief's conclusions, in July 2004, a former senior intelligence official tells U.S. News, he asked, "What is he, some kind of defeatist?")
The crux of the current crisis involves the agency's National Clandestine Service, or directorate of operations, as it was known until it was renamed last fall. The D.O., as intelligence initiates still call it, has some 1,200 case officers around the world, men and women trained to recruit spies from foreign governments and hostile groups, gather information on weapons and other threats, and, when necessary, conduct offensive operations. Over the years, the D.O. has been home to some of the CIA's most respected, courageous, and colorful operatives. And they have scored some major--and largely still secret--successes since 9/11. They placed a paramilitary force on the ground in Afghanistan before the Pentagon had a single soldier there to take down the Taliban regime. They have foiled several serious terrorist plots overseas and worked closely and creatively with foreign intelligence services to nab key al Qaeda figures. They have also used a missile-firing pilotless drone called the Predator to kill al Qaeda members or associates overseas, although some strikes, like that on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border late last month, also resulted in civilian deaths.
Despite such results, however, a triple hex of plummeting morale, a hemorrhage of field-tested veterans, and the drain of trying to counter a seemingly intractable insurgency in Iraq has left the D.O. today facing some of the most serious challenges in its history.
Attrition. After the 9/11 attacks, the White House ordered the CIA to increase the number of clandestine case officers by 50 percent, to some 1,800 operatives. It is an extraordinarily ambitious goal, one that is proving very difficult to meet. The agency is attracting new recruits, but veteran officers have been leaving one after another. Although CIA-wide attrition is said to be below 5 percent--less than the average in the private sector--insiders say the problem is more serious for the D.O. Official figures for the clandestine service are classified, but dozens of current and former officers who spoke with U.S. News for this account say the attrition there is significantly higher--and has increased greatly in the past year. The CIA says its attrition rate is returning to historical levels after dipping in the immediate post-9/11 period, but it is concerned about the number departing after just five to 10 years.