The FP Memo

The FP Memo: Wanted: Spies Unlike Us

The CIA must cultivate foreign sources, reward service overseas, and tap America's top students to once again get good information on enemies of the United States.

TO: Porter Goss, U.S. Director of Central Intelligence
FROM: Robert Baer
RE: Getting the CIA Back in the Game

It’s been a rough three years, Mr. Director. The agency missed the boat on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it miscalculated the armed resistance inside the country, and some say it bears primary responsibility for leading the United States into an unnecessary and costly war. Much of the criticism is overblown, and much overlooks the equally grave failures of other sectors of the government. Still, the CIA is clearly broken, and you have a chance to fix it.

Avoid two traps at the outset: Don’t waste your time thinking that the recent, and much ballyhooed, intelligence reform bill is going to put things right. As you must know already, a top-level reshuffling of the intelligence community won’t do anything to improve the CIA’s performance. And don’t spend too much time fighting battles over your new management team. Most of them will have moved to other jobs before they learn the nuts and bolts of intelligence gathering.

Reform is needed across the board, but the Directorate of Operations (DO) should be your first target. Its mission — recruiting and running foreign spies — should be the agency’s core function. Give the DO the tools it needs, and intelligence analysis will take care of itself. Not to be too blunt about it, but if the DO had a source close to Osama bin Laden, 9/11 would not have happened. Here are my suggestions:

Reform the Promotion System: The old DO rule was that the only way an officer could be promoted was by recruiting sources, and the higher up, the better. Bring a Soviet official into the fold, and you could count on making it into the senior service. At the very least, an officer was expected to recruit one valuable source for every two-year tour overseas. It was never easy, but the expectation guaranteed that officers were motivated.

Then the Cold War ended, and intelligence gathering took a back seat. Within the DO, promotions tilted away from the overseas service and toward those who rarely left Washington. Rather than rotate into the field, officers were encouraged to try their hand at postings outside the CIA, but safely within the Beltway — at the Pentagon or the National Security Council, for instance. Jim Pavitt, who ran the directorate through Sept. 11, 2001, and the Iraq war, hadn’t served outside the United States since the mid-1980s.

To those in the ranks, the message was unmistakable: Not only was time in Washington the fastest way to climb the agency’s ladder but recruiting spies — an inherently risky business — could put your career in jeopardy. No wonder the number of officers working the streets in such places as Beirut, Amman, and Sarajevo has dwindled. There was no reward for the effort. No wonder, either, that the CIA had no sources on WMD in Iraq leading up to the war. Think of what that says about how broken the agency was, and still is.

Know Your Sources: Give the DO credit for not being shy. It didn’t let the absence of credible, on-the-ground sources prevent it from providing a steady stream of intelligence before the Iraq war, most of it contending that Saddam Hussein had retained large stocks of WMD and had a program to build a nuclear bomb. Unfortunately, most of this reporting came from Iraqi exiles, the very people who had spent the last three decades trying to draw the United States into a fight with Saddam. I had left the CIA when this intelligence was disseminated, but I would bet that few of the analysts involved were aware of its provenance.

This problem has an easy but essential fix: Provide the identity, affiliation, and reporting record of sources to senior analysts responsible for final assessments. If this information had been available during preparation of the now infamous October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq, recipients would have been aware that it was Iraqi exiles — and not objective sources — who claimed Saddam was retaining WMDs. The NIE would have been considerably watered down, and today the president and the country would have more confidence in the CIA.

Integrate Federal, State, and Local Databases: There is no shortage of proposals floating around Washington for a supercounterterrorism agency that would consolidate law enforcement and intelligence databases. But proposals and a buck-fifty get you a cup of coffee, especially when so many civil libertarians are lined up against you. The CIA’s own counterterrorism center has been working on this problem since it was established nearly 20 years ago and still hasn’t found a way to DO the job.

It’s important to understand how the system works now. If a CIA officer in the field comes across the name of a suspected terrorist, he or she can instantly trace it in agency databases. The officer cannot do the same with databases maintained by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, or any other federal agency. To access those databases, the officer either has to make a phone call or send a written request. And the same is true of FBI or State Department officers who want to check CIA electronic files. This antediluvian lack of integration has, of course, had tragic consequences. Because the FBI couldn’t access CIA databases, it failed to notice that two Saudis entering the United States were suspected terrorists. The two were among the 19 hijackers on September 11. I understand the fear that the snoops will end up snooping on us, not them. But the risks of uncoordinated intelligence are simply too great.

Recruit on College Campuses: Mr. Director, when you joined the CIA in 1962, it recruited actively and effectively on college campuses. If a student excelled in an obscure language such as Uzbek and expressed a desire to serve his country, a friendly professor might direct him or her toward Langley. It was a vetting system that helped the CIA attract the best and the brightest. The Vietnam War helped put an end to this system and left in its wake a hostile professoriate. Today, the agency relies too heavily on volunteers who come knocking on the door. Having a booth at college job fairs is no substitute for guidance from university professors and administrators.

Reviving even an informal feeder system would surely meet resistance. But if you’re able to reconnect with the country’s top universities and their students, the rewards will be great down the line. Today, the directorate needs six years to vet new employees: a year of working at headquarters, a year of training, a year of language study, and a three-year journeyman tour overseas. For those who prove inadequate along the way, the only recourse is to shunt them off to jobs where they can’t do any harm. Imagine how much better the system would work if the CIA identified the prime talent at the front end.

Lower the Retirement Age: Intelligence gathering is a young person’s business. Meeting with a source at two in the morning and then being at work by eight the next day wears you out. My best guess is that a DO officer serving most or all of his or her career overseas has a useful shelf life of about 20 years. Sure, some of us end up spending our graybeard years down at the Farm, instructing new recruits, but the need there is limited. What the DO doesn’t need is worn-to-the-nub senior officers clogging up the system at the top. Lower the retirement age to 45 for employees who spend their careers in the field.

Stop Relying on Foreign Governments: Like water, CIA field officers are inclined to take the path of least resistance. Why work the streets when you can have a long lunch with a counterpart from some foreign intelligence service, exchange a packet of documents, and go back to the office satisfied you’ve done a day’s work? Better still, "lunch spying" doesn’t run the risk of a recruitment attempt going bad. But that is not how first-class intelligence is collected. The interests of foreign governments rarely dovetail with our own. In the months preceding Sept. 11, 2001, Germany, where the plot was hatched, was more focused on protecting the rights of immigrants than stopping an attack on the United States. We should have had our own spies in al Qaeda’s Hamburg cell.

Change the Security Clearance System: If you are, say, an American born in Islamabad who happens to have a second cousin working in the Pakistani intelligence service, the chances of getting security clearance to join the agency are close to nil. Third-generation Americans with no known foreign relatives but who have spent much of their lives overseas have a better chance, but the odds are still slim, especially if those overseas years were spent studying in a place like Cairo.

Of course, there is always a risk that someone who has studied in Cairo — and picked up an Egyptian girlfriend or boyfriend, and a lot of other Egyptian friends — will have gone over to the dark side. But the CIA and the DO desperately need people who speak foreign languages and who know parts of the world crucial to the United States. To reject such people solely because they aren’t provincial is yet another way the agency cuts off its nose to spite its face.

The CIA needs to establish a system with distinct clearance levels. Level One would cover typical CIA employees and would include a top-secret clearance, a polygraph every three years, a regular financial audit, and a thorough investigation of all foreign contacts. If a Level One employee announces his or her intention to marry a Russian with a cousin in the Russian intelligence service, send a nice present and say goodbye. At the core of our intelligence system are secrets that must be kept, and the best way to do that is to isolate the guardians of those secrets from the outside world.

The problem with isolating people, though, is that they cannot understand the way the world works. That’s why a second class of CIA employees should be created: people who spend the majority of their lives outside the country. They attend foreign universities, marry foreign spouses, and have children who are not Americans. In short, they have divided loyalties. They should be given only secret clearances: no access to intelligence from the National Security Agency, no access to advanced satellite-imaging systems, and no access to our nuclear secrets. (You know the et ceteras.)

Why give such people any clearance? Because we get a window on the world. Let’s say the CIA hires a young U.S. citizen educated at the American University of Beirut who marries a Saudi girl, and who maybe even converts to Islam and moves to Saudi Arabia to take a job. After five or six years living in the kingdom, he’s sure to speak fluent Arabic and move in circles regular CIA employees can’t even glimpse. He might even get close enough to the fundamentalists to recruit one as a source. This reform would radically alter protocols that have been in place since the CIA was founded in 1947. It will be tough to force through the system, but it is crucial if the CIA hopes to adapt.

Recruit on the Dark Side: The directorate needs to recruit a third class of employees: those who skirt the law. I have in mind the dealers in embargoed and stolen oil who beat a path to Baghdad through the 1990s and who stayed up late drinking and partying with Saddam’s son Uday. Imagine if the CIA had someone next to Uday, some confidant to whom that psychopath might have blurted out the fact that his daddy had secretly destroyed all of the WMD. There might not have been a war. No mounting casualties and no intractable morass.

You know as well as I do, Mr. Director, the heat you’ll take when one of these risky recruits goes bad. But it’s up to you to tell Washington what many of the people around you are reluctant to say: We’re waging war, not running a church social.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola