- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Now that the Senate has voted overwhelmingly for an independent probe of the intelligence lapses that left us defenseless against al Qaeda, it seems a safe conclusion that by the second or third anniversary of the September 11 attacks we will have a blue-ribbon report proposing intelligence reforms. That is all well and good, but some urgent steps to enhance our national security can and must be made now. After eight years of budget and personnel cuts, the Central Intelligence Agency is belatedly recruiting the largest class of new spymasters since the Vietnam era. These are the future case officers whose task is to recruit and handle the spies who will give us inside knowledge of foreign governments and terrorist groups. Make no mistake: Today's recruits are not the same caliber that the CIA employed in its pre-Church Committee and pre-Pike Report heyday. To meet politically correct recruitment quotas, the CIA's written tests to qualify for the Career Training Program have been, like the State Department's Foreign Service Exam, dumbed-down. Gone is the CIA foreign language aptitude test. Less knowledge of world history is now required to pass. As a result, CIA instructors say the current crop of case officer trainees lack the requisite "worldliness" and leadership qualities to inspire potential spies to place their lives in the hands of the CIA. One insider remarks that the CIA, unlike the elite agency it once was, is now "no different than the Department of Agriculture." Recently, a case officer who ranked at the top of his class in the 1980s and has excellent performance reviews in difficult assignments was told he would have to remain at the same grade because "diversity requirements" meant more women or minorities had to advance before he could be promoted. This must end. The first task in reforming America's intelligence capabilities is to upgrade the quality of the case officer recruits. The CIA's affirmative action office should be abolished. Recruitment and promotion of CIA case officers should be based solely on merit.

A related weakness of today's CIA is the myth that "ethnic" spymasters case officers with racial or religious backgrounds similar to the spies they will handle are most effective. One award-winning white male case officer recruited a panoply of multicultural spies, including several Third World heads of government, during his ongoing career. Another white male from the Baptist-dominated South, Milt Bearden, put together the most successful covert action plan in the CIA's history that eventually drove the Soviets from Afghanistan. To do so, Mr. Bearden won the trust of Muslim Pakistani intelligence officers and Afghan mujaheddin. An African-American operative with the nomme de guerre "The Lion of the North" inspired devout allegiance from Asian tribesmen during the CIA's war in Laos. Many, if not most, potential spies targeted for recruitment want to trust their safety to a stereotypical American, not necessarily someone who reflects their mirror image. Character matters more to a case officer's success than superficial characteristics. Espionage, like romance, flourishes across racial, ethnic, and religious lines. Case officers liken recruiting agents to seduction. The way to get close to a target is to adopt a shared interest, whether it's piloting gliders or indulging a foreign diplomat's taste for rare cheeses. In places with troubled histories like the Balkans, Africa, or Pakistan, a common ethnic background can complicate recruitments. A target may worry that an ethnic spymaster has a stake in her ancestors' regional grudges. Chauvinism is also a problem. Yet today's politically correct CIA sends female case officers to try to recruit Muslim men, as if the workaday world of spies operated under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's workplace rules.

Just as important as upgrading the caliber of CIA officers is changing how they are deployed. Case officers normally work under diplomatic cover in embassies and consulates abroad. This makes them relatively easy to identify, and renders it virtually impossible for them to blend deeply into the local landscape. The remedy is to rely more on officers with "non-official" cover, sometimes called deep cover, as is done by the British, French and Russian intelligence services. Until the 1970s, the CIA had thousands of such spies working under "proprietary" fronts across the world. Most were assumed compromised and dismissed after the CIA had to disclose details of these operations to hostile congressional investigative committees. This operational capability has never been fully reconstituted.

One way to restore this capability is to jettison the cutoff age of 34 for CIA case officer trainees. The emphasis on youth is a legacy from the agency's paramilitary roots in the wartime OSS. The Foreign Service recruits diplomats of all ages. The CIA should do the same in order to immediately expand the pool of talented linguists and those with overseas experience capable of serving in this time of need.

To improve America's intelligence, we need the best spymasters the nation can produce. That starts at the top. The current deputy director of operations, John Plavitch, lacks the depth of knowledge and imagination to steer the revitalized clandestine services. If he cannot be replaced by a deputy director of operations "street man" familiar with field operations, a talented outsider like former Lockheed Martin President Norm Augustine might do. None of these reforms should wait until the blue-ribbon, independent commission issues its findings.


[Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of editorials addressing needed reforms within the intelligence community.]

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