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.
Among the CIA's four directorates--the other three are the directorates of intelligence, science and technology, and support--the clandestine service has always seen itself as first among equals. President Bush's new CIA director, Porter Goss, has a different view. Agency spokesperson Jennifer Millerwise Dyck says: "The director's view is that the agency is at its best when all four directorates are working collectively for the same objectives." A new reorganization plan, announced at an offsite seminar in late January, proposes melding the four directorates into a new functional design. Also, intelligence sources criticize what they say is a diversion of resources intended for the "core collectors" of the clandestine service--the case officers assigned to recruit spies and the reports officers who are charged with writing up the intelligence they collect.
More important than the number of departing spies is the fact that so many have been its most seasoned veterans, inhabitants of "baron" posts, like those of the regional division chiefs and directors of the counterterrorism and counterproliferation centers. Within the past year, according to current and former case officers and supervisors, virtually the entire top level of the D.O. has turned over. One intelligence official estimates that at least 20 of the most coveted senior spots have been vacated in the 17 months since Goss arrived. The post of European division chief has turned over twice, as has the No.2 official of the directorate, the associate deputy director for operations. Some have moved to new positions, but many have departed or retired. Agency spokesperson Dyck says: "As more agencies get into the intelligence business, they're coming to the CIA for senior leaders to help set up their shops."
For the nation's premier intelligence agency, this amounts to the loss of hundreds of years of experience in some of the most difficult and dangerous parts of the world--precisely the places Washington needs experienced eyes and ears as it continues to prosecute the war on terrorism. Because virtually all of these individuals worked in clandestine capacities, U.S. News will not reveal their names or publish information that could lead to exposure of their identities.
The extent of the exodus from the operations directorate has not previously been reported. Several senior D.O. officials have made their departures public, however, citing disagreements with Goss, the former chairman of the House intelligence committee. The respected top two officials in the D.O., Stephen Kappes and Michael Sulick, were pushed out shortly after Goss arrived at the CIA's collegelike campus just outside Washington. In September, Sulick's replacement, Robert Richer, also announced his resignation--after less than nine months on the job. It took more than three months to find someone willing to fill Richer's post, a plum job considered a steppingstone to the top spot in the D.O. Three others turned down the job.
Other senior case officers are reportedly planning to leave as soon as they turn 50. Should that happen, coming on the heels of those who have already left, the D.O. will be fielding perhaps the most inexperienced team of intelligence officers in its history. Burton Gerber, who retired from the D.O. in 1995 after 39 years, including five stints as station and division chief, says, "The skills can only be acquired on the job; there is no other training. "Compared with someone like Gerber, a recently retired case officer estimates that today as many as 1 in 5 station chiefs has had just two or fewer overseas postings before being promoted. "These people are competent," this retired officer says. "But they don't have the level of experience--they have been pushed into these jobs before their time, in a sense."
Why the mass exodus? A veteran official cites two reasons: morale and money. The most senior operatives, this man says, are leaving because they are unhappy with the leadership of the agency. "Goss," this man says dismissively, "is not seen as serious by the careerists." While Goss may say the right things, some agency veterans say, he is not actively managing the agency. Goss has told officials he "doesn't do personnel," leaving such issues to the clutch of aides he brought from Capitol Hill, most of whom had only short tours at the CIA years before. These aides, known to insiders as "Gosslings," are seen by many as arrogant and unapproachable.
Goss supporters dispute such assertions. The new director, they say, came in with an agenda of change, which many veterans resisted. The bad blood began when some leaked to the press the shoplifting history of one of the "Gosslings." Both sides dug in their heels, and things soon went from bad to worse. One ambitious D.O. official began encouraging others to leave in protest, a senior official says--then stayed on and moved up the ladder.
"Barons." Others say that all the talk about departures misses the bigger picture. A senior intelligence official points out that 120,000 men and women applied to the agency last year and says that in November the largest class in the D.O.'s history graduated from training at "the farm," in rural Virginia. Disputing the magnitude of the exodus from the D.O., this official says: "The folks who have been here 15 to 25 years are a valuable asset," but he characterizes most of the departures as demographic in nature. "They've reached their time." Another senior intelligence official dismisses the critics in more strenuous terms. "With no disrespect to our Cold War barons, it is time for a new generation. We have a new innovative leadership team who are truly coming into their own. They are more in tune with today's threats. They know how to use the Internet; they don't dictate to secretaries."
Despite all the internal wrangling, the men and women of the D.O. clearly face serious challenges--and questions about whether their talents are being used to best advantage. In Iraq, case officers are being ordered to collect tactical military rather than strategic intelligence. Regulations from CIA headquarters require that they leave Baghdad's Green Zone and other secure compounds only in armored three-car convoys. Security concerns dictate such precautions, but they also severely limit case officers' ability to gather useful information and, basically, do their jobs. One intelligence source recounts how the Baghdad station chief went out one night more than a year ago to meet with an Iraqi informant, taking the required convoy. "The difficulties of having a clandestine meeting when you are accompanied by a three-car convoy should be obvious," says a retired intelligence official. A case officer told another former senior official that he regularly leaves the confines of Baghdad alone, in violation of the agency's regulations, packing a pistol and a shotgun; he is one of the few case officers there, he adds, who do so.
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."
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.
If the D.O. can somehow manage to stanch the flow of experienced case officers, bring in more fresh blood, and begin to meet the 50 percent expansion target, it will be an achievement of real significance. But in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, still more tough new challenges have been placed before the CIA. The agency has been directed to take the lead in all human intelligence-gathering efforts throughout the sprawling U.S. intelligence community. This means not just managing and coordinating the activities of spies from other agencies but establishing and enforcing common standards for training and tradecraft to help operatives avoid reliance on shaky sources, as the Defense Intelligence Agency did with the Iraqi exile code-named "Curveball," who delivered a lot of bogus information about Saddam Hussein's supposed stores of banned weapons. The agency is also responsible now for developing new capabilities for overt and covert intelligence action overseas and for developing more-advanced and innovative technologies to help America's spies collect intelligence on terrorists and rogue states.
Drawing lines. This, obviously, is much easier said than done. If clear, simple lines could be drawn between the CIA's domain of foreign intelligence, the FBI's domain of domestic intelligence, and the military's traditional domain of tactical battlefield intelligence, things might not be so difficult. In an effort to begin enforcing its new mandate to lead and coordinate all human intelligence gathering, the CIA signed memoranda of understanding with the FBI and the Pentagon last year that outlined procedures for informing one another of the activities each is undertaking. Under the agreement, the Pentagon informs the CIA of its military-related collection, but there are still reports of friction in the field. In a new book, Transforming U.S. Intelligence, John MacGaffin, the CIA's former associate deputy director of operations, warns that "if the DOD continues on this path, we could soon have two entities--CIA and DOD--conducting the same intelligence-collection activities in the same space, without a clear, authoritative controlling mechanism." A Pentagon source says that in recent months, however, the two agencies have made significant progress in defining which activities are military and which are the CIA's domain.
The CIA has made strides in increasing its covert-action capabilities, but there are still significant challenges in what are arguably the most difficult jobs in this difficult profession. The covert-action arm of the agency, called the Special Activities Division, has been expanding. Some of the recruits have military experience. But in the view of an official who has worked in both the agency and the military, the division still lacks sufficient ability to plan and execute military-style operations, even though it has the legal mandate to conduct covert action.
Transformation is painful for any institution. But the malaise in the D.O.--Goss recently referred to it as just one among "four equal tribes"--is pervasive. If the controversies about interrogation tactics and secret prisons blow up, and if congressional committees begin turning the place inside out as they did back in the 1970s, even some D.O. veterans critical of the current regime say the consequences could be tragic. "We are still not getting it right," one former senior official says, "but there is no alternative."
This story appears in the February 13, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.