Spy networks being rebuilt for terror war
Head of military intelligence calls for 'more aggressive, offensive attitude.'
Flooded with more than 60,000 applications since Sept. 11, the Central Intelligence Agency and its Pentagon counterpart are beefing up the ranks of spies Â- reversing a decade of cutbacks to hire hundreds of new recruits Â- from Arabic speakers to counterterrorism experts.
The CIA plans to increase the number of "case officers" who work for the agency's clandestine side Â- the Directorate of Operations Â- by 30 percent over the next five years. Already, since September, it has doubled the manpower of its counterterrorism center. The Pentagon is also enlarging its corps of covert intelligence officers who specialize in gathering military secrets.
"We want to both expand and enhance our capabilities to go after tough targets," says Vice Admiral Thomas Wilson, who heads the Pentagon's intelligence effort and directs one of its largest wings: the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). "We have a rush of people interested in applying for jobs in the intelligence community Â- it's true across the board," he said in an interview.
The buildup reflects a dramatic shift of emphasis for the US intelligence community Â- from an imperfect, warnings-based approach to the terrorist threat to a more robust, wartime offense, senior officials say. "The big change for us is not only being concerned about warning and defending, but how we put together the intelligence necessary to attack worldwide," says Admiral Wilson, adding that future warning failures may be inevitable. "On the collection side, a more aggressive, offensive attitude is important."
Yet critics say the intelligence shortfalls symbolized by the successful Sept. 11 attacks are symptomatic of deep, longstanding deficiencies in the clandestine networks of the CIA and DIA, and improving their capabilities will require more than a quick fix of new bodies and funds. Agents need both exhaustive training and support to pursue difficult and obscure targets for the long haul.
After the end of the cold war, US human-intelligence capability Â- "HUMINT" in spy talk Â- atrophied. Since 1991, the CIA's manpower has fallen 20 percent, while the Pentagon's intelligence workforce has shrunk 33 percent, from roughly 24,000 posts to 16,000. "From 1991 to 1998, we virtually ceased hiring," says CIA spokesman Tom Crispell.
The Pentagon downsized its HUMINT services and consolidated them under DIA in 1995. The move divorced the agents from their role of supporting warfighters and "depleted morale," says a senior DIA official whose identity is protected.
At the CIA, critics say a diminished Directorate of Operations grew risk-averse and complacent, with some operatives filling quotas by recruiting worthless field agents. The agency operated "less like a hard-core intelligence organization and more like a back-channel State Department," writes Bruce Berkowitz, a government intelligence consultant and former CIA analyst.
"HUMINT is very important. It's something we ignored," says one defense-intelligence official.
Meanwhile, agencies made dramatic technological leaps in gathering and sharing intelligence, but these advances often overshadowed and outpaced the work of spies and analysts.
Over the past decade, the quantity of data collected by satellites and spy planes has surged. Moreover, the Pentagon has installed an elaborate information-network Â- including secure online links for thousands of intelligence officials and users Â- and a videoconferencing system connecting hundreds of officials from the Secretary of Defense down to soldiers in the field. The system allows for real-time sharing of maps, photos, and other data, so disparate officials can collaborate on targeting, battle damage assessment, and other analysis.
Yet, while more information is moving more places faster, progress in understanding it has lagged behind. Analysts are "stretched too thin" to mine it, Wilson says. As a result, the US spy service was ill-prepared to counter an array of new, unconventional threats, including terrorism. In Jan. 2001, for example, an official probe of the Oct. 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen concluded that Pentagon intelligence priorities had shifted from the cold war to emerging threats "only at the margins."
Today, with the overall US intelligence budget expected to rise 7 percent in fiscal year 2002, the CIA and DIA are bolstering their ranks, poring over hundreds of new online applications a week to find Americans with everything from obscure language skills to chemistry backgrounds and MBAs. Scores of ex-CIA veterans are back, Mr. Crispell says.
Yet nurturing skilled agents requires years of mentoring, and the CIA's more aggressive approach, while welcome, is already leading to mishaps in the field, says Robert Baer, a veteran Middle East operative who worked at the CIA until 1997. "The CIA is taking many more risks now," he says. "A lot of people are going out and making mistakes and being sent back to Washington."
So far, calls to centralize US intelligence-gathering by placing three Defense Department agencies under the director of Central Intelligence have been resisted by top Pentagon officials, who say more intelligence sources are better. Says Wilson: "I don't see any need for a big reorganization."