Spies: CIA tries to make 'em like they used to

Applicants have doubled since 9/11, but the agency still struggles to find the 'right stuff.'

In the days immediately following Sept. 11, the government realized just how lean its legion of foreign spies had become. Government downsizing and advances in electronic spying had led to bringing many men and women home. The CIA had even closed two stations in Muslim countries.

It was clear – with the lack of warning before 9/11 and the planned retaliatory attack on Afghanistan – that the CIA had to bump up its modest recruiting effort. It needed to add scores of clandestine officers who could drop in and mingle with the people in Afghanistan, as well as in many other Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian countries where Al Qaeda had spread its tentacles.

"We expect to increase the number of officers in the clandestine service by 20 to 25 percent over the next four years," says Tom Crispell, spokesman for the CIA.

The kinds of candidates targeted, Mr. Crispell says, are people with overseas experience; skills in difficult languages such as Arabic Farsi, Dari, Pashto, Korean, and Chinese; and computer skills – "anything that can help us fight terrorism."

Like so many things the CIA won't talk about, agency officials won't discuss a profile of the ideal recruit – it would give away their game plan. But, as one official notes, they're obviously not going to send a 6-ft. 2-in. blond into Afghanistan.

One former high-level CIA official, who asked not to be identified, says there is definitely a prototype the agency is looking for – and Robert Baer is it.

Mr. Baer is a recently retired spy with many years of overseas undercover experience that he detailed in a published memoir "See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism."

He was a Renaissance man, whose breeding – not necessarily university degrees – infused him with a blend of social savvy and hard-core street smarts.

Character, too, was essential to the mix: Baer was a bit of a maverick, but had a love for his country.

When he was 9, Baer's mother – a recently divorced political science professor – whisked him out of school and off to Europe for two years. While frequenting museums and ski slopes on the Continent, Baer developed an ear for languages, and his mother lectured him on political theory – Aristotle, Plato, and Clausewitz.

After that high-octane curriculum, they returned to live in rural Colorado, where Baer raced on his high school ski team (with Olympian Andy Mill) and polished his street skills.

He later attended a military academy, then Georgetown University.

Baer says he spent most of his CIA career living on the edge, pushing the envelope. He developed agents who spied on, or penetrated, terrorist groups.

He was nearly obsessed with finding out who was responsible for the 1980s bombings of the US Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut.

And, at the end of his career in 1997, Baer was investigated for – and cleared of – plotting to assassinate Saddam Hussein.

"For [my former boss], I was like an alley cat," says Baer. "He didn't know what was going to break through the door, but he was always interested."

Baer explains that a good officer needs to be fairly intellectual, take an interest in other parts of the world, preferably have military experience, and be a good salesman. He says that, though CIA training is excellent and provides a good start, on-the-ground experience is most important.

And Baer cites this example of one of the best officers he worked with: He was a Belarussian who'd spent four or five years of his youth in Russia and could speak the language like a native. He also spent four or five years in the US special forces.

"You could put him down anywhere in the former Soviet Union, and he would come back with agents – he would make 30 to 40 meetings in a day. When I became a manager, I wanted more like him."

Baer says the problem is finding good men and women like that today. He lauds the CIA for reinstituting its recruitment program, but says the agency has become too risk-averse because of its problem with double agents among its own, like Aldrich Ames.

And he doesn't think recruiting should be done – as has been traditional – only at select universities.

The agency is now recruiting at 66 universities in the US – where it has experienced success in the past, says the CIA's Crispell. And, he says, the agency has started Web-based recruiting.

"By the 9/11 anniversary, we will have received about 120,000 applications," Crispell says. That's about double the number of applications received during the prior year.

Another retired officer who now teaches international-relations courses at Boston University, agrees.

"[The CIA] says it's making a push, but I don't see it," says Art Hulnick, who began teaching at BU in 1989 as part of the CIA's Officers in Residence Program. "A recruiter has never come to BU."

Another concern is the rapid pace of hiring, training, and deployment.

"My feeling is they've gone overboard," says one official who retired from the Counterterrorism Center and asked not to be identified.

"It takes years to develop an officer. You have to approach it from a sophisticated way – languages, overseas ... regional experience," says the former official.

Baer agrees."How do you keep an agent from crossing the line, and how do you push him? Those things I learned – thanks to the CIA – being in places like northern Iraq, Tajikistan, Moscow."

Baer says he's a "believer in the CIA, and when it does well, it does very well. I just love the information it can develop with human sources. The real stuff run out of Moscow is better than the stuff of novels, even better than [John] Le Carré."

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