Why the CIA is having such a hard time keeping its best
Few experts believe that using contractors is the way to achieve the 50 percent increase in clandestine personnel. But a big factor limiting the expansion is a bottleneck in the security-clearance process that all new D.O. recruits must undergo. The CIA's Office of Security has been overwhelmed by the numbers, and much of the vetting is now being outsourced. The push to find second-generation Americans with the desired language skills and cultural backgrounds, or at least Americans with international experience or ties, further complicates the vetting process since overseas background checks typically take far longer than domestic ones. "This issue has been of intense interest to us," says House Intelligence panel member Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican. "It is a very high priority for us not to have a six-month or longer backlog in security clearances."
Even if the vetting issues can be resolved more rapidly, the D.O. will still be fielding a cadre of case officers greener than perhaps at any time in the CIA's nearly 60-year history. More than a third of the current estimated 1,200 case officers have been on the job less than five years, but this problem predates Director Goss. Since there was very little hiring during the 1990s, the managerial corps that should be taking over now was never brought on board, and the agency is now reaping the consequences. It takes five years to grow and season an effective case officer, according to testimony by former director George Tenet. The process includes a rigorous training program at Camp Peary, as "the farm" is officially known, language school, and a shakedown tour overseas. In the late 1990s, a 105-room dorm was added to Camp Peary, and class sizes were doubled and opened to non-CIA operatives. So now there are many new case officers, but they're finding fewer veterans with deep experience to guide them. "They spend two years training," says Baer, the former case officer, "and now they are sitting in D.C. working for someone who's never been overseas."
Fresh blood. On top of all the many difficult issues the clandestine leadership faces is that of Iraq. The precise number of case officers assigned there could not be determined, but several estimates placed the number of all CIA employees at about 500. That includes support staff, but most of the experts consulted for this account say that anything like several hundred case officers there is far too high. Baer, who spent most of his career in the Middle East, estimates that 100 or fewer is probably appropriate, especially given the way they are being used and the fact that so few of them speak Arabic fluently. A senior intelligence official says, "We are not just strategic collectors." But he acknowledges that "we should continually watch that we don't just have bodies over there."
Whatever the right number in Iraq is, the D.O.'s massive investment there is leaving it uncovered, or barely covered, in other key places, intelligence officials say. "Terrorists are just going to move into these and other ungoverned spaces, where we have no case officers," says a veteran case officer. In a speech to agency employees at CIA headquarters last September, Goss said that many of the stations and bases closed in the 1990s had been or would be reopened.