Why the CIA is having such a hard time keeping its best
In the movie Syriana, the case officer portrayed by George Clooney meets alone with his sources throughout the film. That's the way it must be done, says Bob Baer, the real-life model for Clooney's character and the author of See No Evil, a memoir of his years as a covert operative in the Middle East. "You cannot pick up an asset with three cars, "Baer says. "... If [CIA officers] can't get out of the Green Zone, they've been marginalized. They are not able to see Iraqis in their native plumage."
Whipsawed? Compounding the challenges for the D.O. is a new wave of political uncertainty that some veteran case officers say is having a profound impact on morale. The public drubbing of the CIA over its failures of 9/11 and the prewar intelligence on Iraq was bad enough, but the controversy over aggressive questioning of terrorist suspects and the legal authorization to do so is also deeply worrisome to many in the D.O. Some case officers are concerned about being whipsawed for doing their jobs--punished by the courts after following orders approved by the executive branch--and left swinging in the wind.
Ignominy. Regardless of their view, many agree that when the rules change, people get hurt, and careers get ended. For example, after the Iran-contra affair in President Reagan's second term, several senior D.O. officers were forced out in ignominy; a few were prosecuted criminally. "That memory cast a long shadow," a Cold War-era veteran says. "These are U.S. government employees being told to do these things. They fear being hung out to dry."
It's not just the uncertainty and the plunging morale that are causing case officers to pack it in, some say; today it's the lure of big money. Private contractors like Blackwater, Science Applications International Corp., and Abraxas, a company formed in 2001 by former CIA officials, are hiring even midlevel CIA employees for salaries of $200,000 or more. Abraxas, founded by former D.O. veteran Hollis Helms, has hired 200 former intelligence officers and has won awards in the past two years for being one of the fastest-growing technology companies in North America. Its senior management is composed of former officials who left the CIA some years ago, including the CIA's former director of administration, its chief polygrapher, a former Africa division chief, and a China station chief. In an interview with Entrepreneur Weekly in November, Helms said, "At one point, we calculated that our employees have over 3,000 years of experience in foreign intelligence." Abraxas opened an office in China in 2004, expanding its offerings of "global risk mitigation services" to private and government clients. One of those services uses proprietary technology to detect suspected terrorists' surveillance of airports or industrial installations. Another provides business-intelligence units that perform "deception detection" with experts trained to spot physical and behavioral clues that someone is lying.
A particular irony of the current situation in the D.O. is that its personnel needs are so great that executives often turn to newly minted contractors, known as "green badgers," and invite them to return to work at the agency. As contractors, they generally cannot serve as supervisors, although exceptions can be made. Like regular case officers, the green badgers collect intelligence and serve as watch officers, but their administrative and mentoring talents are largely lost to the agency. Some contractors have reopened stations in countries where the CIA had closed them in the 1990s. Some see their reopening as a positive development except for the fact, as one agency veteran notes, that the taxpayers are "just paying more."