Does the CIA have enough spies out stealing secrets around the world?
That's one of the most critical questions facing US intelligence - and some key members of Congress think that almost three years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks US human intelligence manpower remains underfunded.
In a stinging slap at CIA officials, the House Select Committee on Intelligence judges in a recently released report that espionage manpower is in an "entirely unacceptable state of affairs."
It's a rebuke that reflects Capitol Hill's increasingly aggressive oversight of US espionage performance.
This week alone will see the beginning of congressional hearings meant to examine the intelligence provided to the Bush administration prior to the war on Iraq, as well as the continuation of meetings of a special commission appointed to examine intelligence failings that might have led to Sept. 11, and report to the public.
"The nation's security would benefit from fundamental structural and management changes within the intelligence community," concludes the report accompanying the fiscal 2004 House intelligence authorization bill.
The most-needed reforms, according to the committee report, are in the arena of human intelligence (HUMINT in the intelligence community's lexicon). More eyes on the ground, more effective management of them, more diversity, and more advanced skills - especially in languages - are needed.
Without providing specific numbers and examples, the report points out the scarcity of spies in critical areas. And it points out that when crises occur - such as in Afghanistan and Iraq - spies are reassigned from their areas of expertise to focus on the current crisis.
The report acknowledges that the gaps in human intelligence are due, in large part, to congressional underfunding during the 1990s.
But since the mid to late 1990s, the CIA has focused on rebuilding its clandestine network. In April 2002, Jim Pavitt, deputy director for operations at the CIA, gave a speech at Duke University.
"I have more spies stealing more secrets than at any time in the history of the CIA," he said. "I ask you to take me at my word. We're stealing more secrets, providing our leadership with more intelligence than we've ever done before."
Mark Mansfield, a CIA spokesman, says he can't be specific, but, "Are we deploying more officers in the field? Yes."
And in terms of language capabilities, Mr. Mansfield says the agency is making great strides. "The number of Arabic speakers at the CIA has tripled in the past five years or so," he says. "Recruiting people with language capabilities has been, and continues to be, a top priority."
Still, rebuilding human intelligence is an involved, difficult business.
"The intelligence community will turn itself inside out" to continue recruiting more diverse and talented people, says Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst now at the National Defense University. But she cautions that the selection and training process is long and tedious.
She also points out that, yes, there has been a huge jump in new hires. But a vast number of people - with advanced skills and training ability - have taken early retirements as well.
"You've got to balance how many come in with how many have left," she says.
Moreover, she says the practice of stealing bodies for crises is nothing new. In the 1990s, for example, she says the agency created special task forces for the 1991 Gulf War, for Bosnia, and for Somalia.
"You've got to storm on all these crises," she says. "But that means you tend to miss things - like the nuclear test in Pakistan - because you don't have experienced people watching."
She also points out that the agency arranges its people around the five or so priorities that the administration cares most about. "On the one hand, that sounds logical," she says. "But my own view is that you tend to lose your flexibility. You can't be prepared when things like come out of the blue - like the nuclear test in Pakistan or Liberia."
The other area of critical concern to the House Select Intelligence Committee is communications.
"The Committee notes that information sharing within the IC [intelligence community] has improved since the terrorist attacks on the United States," the report says. "Problems and 'unnecessary restrictions,' however, continue to exist."
Getting all of the agencies within the intelligence community to better share information is taking place on several levels. Some responsibility for this has been handed to the new Department of Homeland Security. The CIA's new Terrorist Threat Integration Center is also meant to address this problem.