Intelligence: July 24, 2003


The CIA is undergoing a terrific spy shortage. During the last two decades of the Cold War, spies fell out of favor, being replaced by ever more capable spy satellites and electronic eavesdropping. Spies were messy. Unlike James Bond, they often screwed up or got caught. Moreover, many of the spies were foreigners hired by CIA "handlers" and paid to find out what was going on locally. But many of these spies were unsavory characters, and when this became widely known, Congress demanded that the CIA stop dealing with such lowlifes. Laws were passed. Even when the CIA explained that the best way to track lowlifes was with lowlifes, not enough people paid attention. The spy satellites were much sexier, and less embarrassing. The end of the Cold War, and Bill Clinton's reluctance to revive the CIA's rapidly disappearing spy network, left the United States dependent on allied spy networks for information. This info often came with strings, and the US was often not willing to pay the price (in cash or favors).. Then came September 11, 2001. All of a sudden, spies were needed, but the CIA had only a handful of people who knew how to recruit and "run" spies. Out of desperation, dozens of retired "case officers " (spy recruiters and handlers) were enticed back into service. Some were in their 70s, and only willing to do it part time. Actually, the rebuilding began in the late 1990s, when even Clinton and many CIA bashers in Congress realized that the U.S. had become dangerously lightweight in this area of intelligence. Al Qaeda was looming larger, and the Chinese and North Korean intelligence efforts in the United States and overseas were becoming too obvious to ignore. The problem was that it takes 5-10 years to train a good case officer (junior grade), and that's after dumping more than half the candidates you recruited initially because they couldn't cut it. Back in 1999, it was estimated that it would take until 2005 before American spymasters were anywhere near where they were in the 1970s. September 11, 2001 demanded that the 2005 goals be achieved a lot earlier. But you can only rush these things so much, even with all the new work for spies that has appeared in the last two years. The old timers are getting worked into the ground, and everyone is nervous about what kind of trouble all those spymaster trainees are liable to get into. Actually, several of them have already caused some nasty problems, but the lid has been kept on, so far. After all, we're at war. 


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