WASHINGTON — The blonde - a cross between TV's "La Femme Nikita" and a Washington lawyer - grins knowingly out of the glossy pages of an international news magazine.
"Do you have what it takes?" asks the bold advertising line just over her shoulder, paid for by the Directorate of Operations (DO), the clandestine service of the Central Intelligence Agency.
"Did you see that one?" CIA Director George Tenet asks enthusiastically of the ad. "We worked on another one that says, 'If you ever liked taking apart your radio and putting it back together, we might have a job for you.'"
Blame the tight labor market, budget cuts, or low morale fueled by post-cold-war mission confusion, but the ad in London's The Economist illustrates an acute problem the CIA no longer wants to keep secret: It's fast running out of spies.
To counter the flight of experienced operatives trained in skullduggery, the agency has embarked on the most aggressive recruiting drive in its five-decade history. If it can't bolster the number of case officers, experts say, the CIA runs the risk of being caught flat-footed, as with India's nuclear tests this spring, which caught the agency - and thus the United States - unawares.
"We anticipate the current program will rebuild the operations-officer cadre by more than 30 percent over the next seven years," says CIA spokeswoman Anya Guilsher. Augmenting a national media campaign is the college-campus recruitment program that has been under way for years.
But while the agency used to actively recruit at 120 colleges, it is now concentrating its efforts at half that number, pinpointing universities with strong computer and technical programs and those with large numbers of minorities.
In addition to the fresh crop of college graduates, the worldly wise are also encouraged to apply.
"We are also looking for people with international experience, languages, business experience. You are not necessarily going to get someone like that right out of college," says Ms. Guilsher. Congress is pumping a classified amount of money into the recruitment effort.
The DO began experiencing sharp losses in personnel nearly seven years ago, after the fall of the Soviet Union. By last year, the number of people leaving the agency exceeded fresh recruits by 3 or 4 to 1.
Insiders cite a number of reasons for the departures, including overall mission drift and the way the CIA has handled spy scandals, including mole Aldrich Ames, who funneled secrets to Moscow from 1985 until his arrest in 1994.
Such demoralizing headlines underscore the agency's need for fresh recruits as Tenet seeks to reform the CIA. The current hiring drive was already in the planning stages when the CIA's failure to detect India's nuclear tests last spring solidified recruiting resolve from Capitol Hill to the CIA's suburban headquarters in McLean, Va.
"If you had the right number of people in the field doing the right thing, the failure wouldn't have occurred," says a congressional source familiar with agency operations.
Intelligence observers estimate total agency employees at just over 16,000. One estimate places the total number of case workers in the field at less than 1,000. "My guess is most Americans would overguess by 10- to 20-fold the numbers out there spying [for the CIA]," the source says.
IT'S not just the manner in which the recruitment calls are sounded that is changing.
The agency is also overhauling the way it handles would-be spies. In the past, applicants could expect to wait more than a year and a half as their application crawled through the hiring bureaucracy.
In today's tight labor market, many applicants were simply walking away, signing on to higher-paying jobs in the private sector.
Today, a CIA contact is assigned to answer applicants' questions, and the agency claims the hiring period has been compressed to six to eight months. "We're overhauling our entire recruitment system," says Tenet.
Still, the agency is constricted by government pay scales - starting pay for a professional trainee is $30,000, about $5,000 less than what the average college graduate received this year.
What a CIA job can provide is the cachet of being a CIA agent - the lure of being in the know on world affairs. The agency also recruits using a rarely discussed theme these days: patriotism.
"Patriotism is not a word used much anymore ... but there are still people who learn about the CIA's mission and understand that it really does have an important purpose and function and want to work in the agency," says Ronald Kessler, author of "Inside the CIA."
Once in, today's trainees receive a more intensive, highly technical education than in the past. "You can't collect [intelligence] in rocket science if you don't know about rocket science," says a congressional source. Today, a case officer in the field receives an average of one to three years of training.
Part of the need for greater numbers is sparked by the reopening of an undisclosed number of stations in former East Bloc countries, which were closed in the early 1990s.
The CIA says the reopenings are not necessarily to spy on former cold-war adversaries, but rather to monitor a region now transformed into a crossroads for weapons for hire.