The top ranks of government counterintelligence agencies are empty due to resignations and retirements amid a dispute over the role of counterspying, U.S. intelligence officials say.
The most senior U.S. government counterintelligence official -- presidential appointee Michelle Van Cleave -- resigned last month after the office of the National Counterintelligence Executive (NCIX), which she headed, was made part of the new Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).
At the FBI, CIA and Pentagon, senior counterintelligence positions are held by acting officials. At the White House, the National Security Council (NSC) counterintelligence staff position has been downgraded. In the past, it was held by an FBI counterspy. Heidi Avery, the current NSC counterintelligence director, is not an FBI agent.
Intelligence officials said the failure to fill the top posts is a sign of bias against counterspying by senior intelligence officials under DNI John Negroponte and at other agencies.
It goes against the recommendations of a presidential commission that called improving efforts to counter foreign spying an urgent priority.
The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction stated last year that "while our enemies are executing what amounts to a global intelligence war against the United States, we have failed to meet the challenge."
It said counterspying efforts "have remained fractured, myopic, and only marginally effective."
Former FBI Counterintelligence Chief Dave Szady, who left Jan. 27 for a private-sector job, said in a recent interview that the threat from foreign spies "is worse now than it was in the Cold War." An FBI official said FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has identified spying by China as the most serious foreign intelligence threat.
Mr. Szady has not been replaced. The acting counterspy chief is Tim Bereznay, a veteran special agent.
"At a time of maximum need for counterintelligence, the administration has put out good words, but is showing by deed that counterintelligence is not a priority," said a senior U.S. intelligence official.
The official said those within the intelligence bureaucracy have "resisted counterintelligence reform for a decade."
"The DNI is confident that counterintelligence operations are being very effectively conducted across the intelligence community," DNI spokesman Carl Kropf said. He added that the selection process is active and that "we anticipate that these vacancies will be filled expeditiously."
Miss Van Cleave left as NCIX director last month. She was instrumental in setting a new national counterintelligence strategy approved by President Bush that called for conducting offensive counterintelligence activities and using counterintelligence techniques to go after terrorists.
The leading candidate to replace Miss Van Cleave is Paul J. Redmond, a former CIA counterintelligence chief who helped uncover CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames, a KGB mole in the agency.
Intelligence officials said one problem with beefing up counterintelligence is that senior officials within Mr. Negroponte's office are opposed to giving counterintelligence more clout and independence.
In particular, the current DNI mission manager for collection, Mary Margaret Graham, who left as head of counterintelligence at the CIA last year, regards counterintelligence as a support function.
Counterintelligence "needs to remain a strategic mission rather than a support activity," a second intelligence official said. "We have to stay ahead of foreign intelligence services that are out there going after our secrets."
Counterspies must comprehend and take action against foreign spies who are attacking the government to steal secrets, not simply how they interfere with U.S. spying efforts.
At the Pentagon, Carol A. Haave, deputy undersecretary of defense for counterintelligence and security, left in November, and no replacement has been named, although an acting official is in place.
A CIA spokesman declined to say whether the National Counterintelligence Center director is acting or permanent.
When reached by telephone in California, Miss Van Cleave said she left her NCIX job because she had accomplished many initial reforms.
"I am confident that the contributions that the NCIX team has made will be a solid foundation for Director of National Intelligence to carry forward," she said.