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Upgrade America's spy program

The CIA's National Clandestine Service urgently needs reform.

By Joseph W. Augustyn / April 7, 2009

Fairfax, Va.

A few years ago, as a case officer with what is now called the National Clandestine Service (NCS), I was involved in an operation that had the potential to yield valuable intelligence on a rogue state's financial stability and political intentions toward the United States.

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To help me, I needed another Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer with the background and expertise of a sophisticated international banker. Given the nature of the operation and the political and diplomatic risks involved if exposed, I also needed CIA headquarters approval.

I got neither.

Why? Because the type of operation I was proposing had not been done before, and the person I needed to help did not exist on the CIA payroll.

Let me be clear: What the NCS has accomplished post-9/11 has been remarkable. The clandestine service has helped keep America safe and continues to be the envy of every spy service in the world. What makes this achievement even more remarkable, however, is that the NCS has done this with a bureaucracy, an organizational structure, a personnel promotion system, and an approach to operational activity better suited to the 20th century. At some point, the NCS needs to change in the face of 21st-century challenges. That time has come.

The NCS culture is based on tradition, exclusivity, some myth, and a pervasive attitude among "insiders" that suggests that if you haven't been there and done it, then no one on the "outside," including Congress or neophyte administration staffers, can understand or reform it.

Many insiders, of course, proclaim that the agency has already changed dramatically. As evidence of reform, they point to an increase and shift of valuable resources to the CIA's Counterterrorism Center; the creation in the 1990s of entities such as the Counterproliferation Division; and to the increase in the overall number of case officers and analysts supporting not only US efforts against terrorism, but also the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. They publicly cite the hiring of new officers with language capabilities and the resurgence of the effort to conduct "nontraditional" operations.

All this is true, but it is simply not enough.

To effect meaningful change in a culture steeped in tradition and legend, it will take a leader within the CIA willing to take on the challenge. A bold leader willing to break crockery. One who can accept risk-taking and well-intentioned but sometimes unproductive operational activity. And, equally important, a leader willing to impose penalties on those inside the NCS who clearly stray from mandated and officially approved "rules of engagement." The strong hope is that new CIA Director Leon Panetta is that person.