How To Make a Spy

For 60 years, the United States has struggled and failed to create a first-rate secret intelligence service. Few agents can haggle in a foreign bazaar or even hope to understand rapid-fire Arabic. It may be hard to find the proper skills among the present generation of young Americans. But it would not be impossible to create them.

War is the ultimate intelligence failure. When intelligence fails, the consequence is the Korean War in 1950. The consequence is the Vietnam War in 1965. The consequence is 9/11. The consequence is Iraq today. The long war in which we are now engaged is an intelligence war, and we will win it or lose it by virtue of our intelligence.

A decade ago, the CIA’s problems included dwindling money, haywire technology, dispirited personnel, revolving-door leadership, and a drifting sense of mission. Taken together, they were devastating. In his recent memoir, George J. Tenet, director of central intelligence for seven years under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, described the CIA he inherited in 1997 as a "burning platform" — an oil rig on fire in a stormy sea.

Today, six years after 9/11, money is no object at the CIA. The agency is working hard to fix its information technologies. Gen. Michael V. Hayden is perhaps the most capable director since Robert Gates, now secretary of defense, who led the country’s espionage service more than 14 years ago. And everyone knows what the mission is: to know the enemy, to prevent the next Pearl Harbor, and to provide the president with the information he needs to construct a strategy for the United States — not for tomorrow, but for five years beyond the horizon. These are the same reasons the CIA was created 60 years ago this past summer.

But General Hayden must carry out that mission with the least experienced workforce in the history of the CIA. Half his analysts, and a roughly equal fraction of his clandestine service officers, have been hired since 9/11. As youngsters in their 20s have replaced people in their 40s and 50s, the result has been an abridgment of intelligence. "For every 10 analysts with fewer than four years’ service," General Hayden has testified, "we only have one experienced analyst [with] between 10 and 14 years of service." By the CIA’s own standards, these are trainees.

The crucial problem for the CIA is recruiting and training Americans willing to devote their lives to spying. It is, in a word, talent. It has been a problem for six decades.

The annals of the CIA are filled with lamentations by spy chiefs bemoaning the agency’s lack of expertise. At a headquarters meeting on June 23, 1958, Allen W. Dulles, one of the CIA’s early directors, complained that he was "at a loss as to what component of the Agency he can turn to when he desires specific information on the USSR." The agency had none to speak of. Its reporting on the Soviets was pure wind. Richard Bissell, chief of the clandestine service and architect of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, described the CIA as fundamentally incompetent: "By the late 60s, the Agency already had, I thought, a rather lamentable record," said Bissell. The CIA lacked basic skills in military affairs, political analysis, and economic analysis, according to Bissell. The agency had become nothing more than a secret bureaucracy — and a "very sloppy" one at that.

A generation later, early in the Reagan years, a young Robert Gates won promotion to the CIA’s chief of intelligence analysis with an attention-grabbing memo to Director of Central Intelligence William J. Casey. "CIA is slowly turning into the Department of Agriculture," Gates wrote. Gates said that the agency was filled with amateurs "pretending to be experts." Their work was "irrelevant, uninteresting, too late to be of value, too narrow, too unimaginative, and too often just flat out wrong." They had missed or misinterpreted almost every important development in the Soviet Union and its advances into the Third World over the past decade.

The CIA has never had a golden age. It is a myth of the CIA’s own making, the product of the publicity and political propaganda of the agency’s early days. It held that the agency could change the world, and it helps explain why the CIA is so impervious to change. But, in truth, the agency has suffered from the same persistent weakness since the beginning — a lack of skilled, well-trained spies. As early as Oct. 27, 1952, Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, the director of central intelligence during the Korean War, convened his 26 most senior officers at headquarters. He said that "until CIA could build a reserve of well-trained people, it would have to hold its activities to the limited number of operations that it could do well, rather than attempt to cover a broad field with poor performance" by “inferior personnel." "We can’t get qualified people," he lamented. "They just simply don’t exist."

General Smith was right. Espionage is not America’s strong suit. The United States has struggled and failed for 60 years to create a first-rate secret intelligence service — in part because of what makes Americans who they are. Americans want foreigners to think like us, to speak like us, to be like us. The oceans that protected the United States for so long also served as a gulf that kept it from knowing the world.

The number of people at the CIA who can haggle in a bazaar in Tajikistan or hope to understand a rapid-fire conversation in Arabic remains vanishingly small. Gates himself once said the agency has long been incapable of dispatching "an Asian-American into North Korea without him being identified as some kid who just walked out of Kansas." The CIA’s traditions are a large part of the problem. Its fears for its own security long prohibited hiring first-generation Americans with close relatives living overseas. They have weeded out people with unusual backgrounds rather than welcoming them into the fold. As director of central intelligence, Gates once wanted to hire an American citizen raised in Azerbaijan. The recruit was rejected because he failed to score high enough on the written English test. Gates was furious. "I’ve got thousands of people here who can write English," he fumed, "but I don’t have anyone here who can speak Azeri."

To succeed, the CIA will need a new cadre of highly skilled analysts and daring officers — men and women with the discipline and self-sacrifice of the nation’s best military officers, the cultural awareness and historical knowledge of the nation’s best diplomats, and the sense of curiosity and adventure possessed by the nation’s best foreign correspondents.

It is no longer enough for the CIA’s recruiters to promise to find this talent. They have searched for decades and have yet to fill the agency’s ranks with the officers and analysts the job requires. It may be simply too hard to find the proper skills among the present generation of young Americans. But it would not be impossible to create them. Herewith, a modest proposal:

• Invest $20 billion in the Boren Scholarships in the next five years.

Part of the National Security Education Program, the Boren Scholarships, named after former Sen. David L. Boren of Oklahoma, were established in 1991 under the aegis of the Institute for International Education to train a new generation of national security officers. The annual budget today is $2 million for undergraduates and $2 million for graduate students — a ridiculously low investment.

• Use the money to teach 100,000 native-born Americans to speak Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Korean, Pashto, and Urdu.

Twenty billion dollars is a sum roughly equal to the combined costs of one Stealth bomber ($2 billion), one new Navy submarine ($3 billion), and one brigade’s worth of Army Future Combat System technology ($15 billion).

• Start the program with high school seniors.

They would commit to five years of language training upon turning 18. The clock starts running when they graduate from high school. They must continue their studies throughout their summers in college. They must also take college courses in the history and culture of the nations where the language they are studying is spoken. If they graduate from college with a B-plus average or better, pass a basic fluency test, and meet other high standards, they have first crack at $100,000-a-year jobs waiting for them in the military, the State Department, or the CIA.

• Require them to serve a minimum of two years in those jobs, before or after embarking on graduate studies.

Perhaps 1 in 10 of the 100,000 high school seniors would stick it out. But the United States would then have 10,000 more language-qualified Americans than it does today.

Perhaps 1 in 10 among the 10,000 would have what it takes to serve the nation by spying overseas instead of sitting in the pastel-colored offices of American government. That crucial work is not running coups, overthrowing foreign leaders, selling political propaganda, buying elections, or any of the other traditional missions of the CIA’s clandestine service. That work is espionage. The United States can continue to build all the billion-dollar spy satellites it wants. But satellites cannot tell us what we need to know. In the end, the only way to know the mind of the enemy is to talk to him.

For decades, tens of thousands of clandestine service officers have gathered only the barest threads of truly important intelligence — and that is the CIA’s deepest secret. Their mission is extraordinarily hard. But the United States still does not understand the people and the political forces it seeks to contain and control. The CIA has yet to become what its creators hoped it would be.

Espionage is, as President Eisenhower once said, a distasteful but vital necessity. The United States had better get good at it. Language, history, and culture are where Americans need to begin.

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