Assessing, cultivating and recruiting spies has long been a key job of CIA officers. But now it is the CIA officers themselves who are being assessed, cultivated and recruited - sometimes right out of the agency's cafeteria. In what is leading to a critical spy drain, private companies are aggressively seeking highly trained employees of our espionage agencies to fill government contracts.
With the resignation of George Tenet as director of central intelligence and the final hearings of the 9/11 commission last week, the stage is set for the first major restructuring of the intelligence community in decades. While there has been much talk of moving agencies and creating an "intelligence czar," the privatization of our spies has been largely overlooked. The CIA is awash in money as a result of post-9/11 budget increases. But because of general uncertainty over the future, it faces a long delay before it can recruit and train a new generation of spies and analysts. So for now it is building up its staff by turning to the "intelligence-industrial complex." These corporations range from Fortune 500 giants like Booz Allen Hamilton and Northrop Grumman to small companies made up almost entirely of former senior CIA officers, like the Abraxas Corp. in McLean, Virginia. For example, one Abraxas expert, Mary Nayak, formerly ran the Directorate of Intelligence's South Asia group; now she's been hired as a consultant to the CIA's review group on Sept. 11.
Private contractors are taking over jobs once reserved for highly trained agency employees: regional desk officers who control clandestine operations around the world; watch officers at the 24-hour crisis center; analysts who sift through reams of intelligence data; counterintelligence officers who oversee clandestine meetings between agency officers and their recruited spies; and reports officers who act as liaisons between officers in the field and analysts back at headquarters. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the intelligence community working closely with private industry, there is the potential for trouble unless the union is closely monitored. Because the issue is hidden under the CIA's heavy layers of secrecy, it is impossible for even Congress to get accurate figures on just how much money and how many people are involved. But many expertss, after spending millions of dollars training people to be clandestine officers, taxpayers are having to pay them twice as much to return as rent-a-spies.
"The money is incredible," one agency veteran, who handled spies overseas for years, told me. "I doubled my salary to go out and come back in and continue doing what I was doing."
But some of these former officers warned me that their talents are being wasted on unsophisticated tasks, and that because of the slap-dash nature of the rush to expand, the quality of intelligence produced has become questionable. "The problem is these jobs are mindless," one officer-turned-contractor with decades of Middle East experience told me. "So we're all just sitting there looking at each other, and we're making a ridiculous amount of money."
Another former agency employee told me that he was among a group of contractors assigned to analyze e-mail messages on computer hard drives snatched by operatives in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries. "A lot of it was in Arabic and none of us spoke Arabic - just a little problem," he said. "None of us really knew what we were doing and we had management who didn't know what they were doing either."
As the United States gets more deeply involved in the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq, there will be a corresponding increase in private spies. This isn't all bad: By marrying well-trained federal employees with innovative contractors working in a less structured role, perhaps we can find more effective ways of tackling old problems.
But better oversight is critical. If Congress doesn't even know whom the CIA is hiring, how can anyone ensure that what they are doing (and how much they are being paid) is acceptable? As we decide how to remake our intelligence services, we need to find the right balance between the people who make the cloaks and daggers and the people who wear them.
James Bamford is the author of "A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies."
Copyright © 2004 the International Herald Tribune