There was a time when joining the CIA was a career choice. You signed up and fully expected to retire after 25 or 30 years traveling around the globe doing God’s work. Or, at least, the administration’s work. Shocking, but sometimes I guess the two diverge.

Particularly for those entering the operations directorate, you assumed you were embarking on a career that would reward you with challenges, excitement and the knowledge that you were engaged in truly meaningful activity. Naturally, every new officer recruit assumed that he or she would wind up as the director of the agency, or at least a division chief. For most of the agency’s existence, the workforce joined, stayed put and retired. Perhaps after retirement you’d go to work for the agency as a contractor.

When I signed up, the mindset was still longterm. By the time you finished the lengthy training program, the idea that you might leave after a few years was absurd. Besides, at that time, the standard line was… as an operations officer, what other line of work would you move into? You stayed because it was a career, and because deep down you believed you weren’t suitable for any other employment.

They had a career transition center, but as far as me and my buddies knew, there was only one former ops officer who had found employment in the private sector after resigning. The guy worked for a beverage company out West as a security director. Periodically the transition center would send someone around to talk to the officers about life on the outside. “Bob, the beverage company security director” would always get a mention, as if he were the only guy known to have survived the leap to the private sector.

By the way, to avoid any Scooter Libby-like scandal in which the name of someone not really sensitive gets outed to the general public who could really not care less until it becomes a political football, I have changed the name of the beverage company security director. Thus, Bob is in fact an alias.

The career mindset, and the reality of what was available on the outside to those who considered leaving, started to shift noticeably in the 1990s. We could spend a significant amount of space discussing what contributed to the changing agency employment culture, but why bother when we can distill it down to a few bullet points?

In the 1990s, particularly the mid to late part of the decade, the CIA and the entire intelligence community, suffered from the following;

· Shrinking budgets

· Shrinking morale

· Shrinking levels of testosterone

· Shrinking willingness to take calculated and properly evaluated operational risks

· Increasing contracting opportunities for retired and/or resigned CIA personnel

As the 1990s sped toward a rousing finish, the CIA essentially had been beaten into submission. The consummate risk-taking organization had become, as a result of regular beatings on Capitol Hill, smaller budgets, failure to understand the post-Cold War world and other factors, a very risk-adverse entity. As the decade wound to a close, an entire generation of managers had grown up in the agency with the mindset that “… a good watch is when nothing bad happens on my watch.”

In other words, as a manager, the last thing you needed was for one of your pesky operations officers to cause trouble by engaging in some damn operation. Let’s just all sit tight, keep our heads down and wait for our next grade promotion. Why, if you could get through without anything bad happening (meaning anything that results in publicity, hearings on the Hill or a complaint from some foreign liaison), you might just get your promotion into the senior ranks.

Suffice it to say, 9/11 had an impact on the risk adverse tendencies of the agency. While the CIA and the intel community had been working on Al Qaeda in the years leading up to Sept. 11, it was more of an analytical and liaison effort. Sept. 11 forced the CIA back into the operational game and recalibrated the risk vs. gain equation when considering potential operations.

As noted earlier, the sea change resulting from Sept. 11 occurred following several years of dwindling budgets and staff. At the same time, the role of contracting in the intelligence community was becoming more widespread, sophisticated and deep-rooted.

Prior to Sept. 11 it was common for agency retirees in certain service lines, including operations, to hand over their staff badge and, in one smooth motion, pick up their contracting badge. Contracting always has allowed the agency, and other members of the intel community, to take advantage of institutional memory, maintain consistency on operations and fill gaps where staff is unavailable or thinly stretched.

Since Sept. 11, the extent to which the CIA and other members of the intel community rely on contractors has mushroomed. The opportunities for private sector employment never have been brighter for operations officers and others in the CIA. The question now isn’t “… What work am I suited for if I leave the agency?” The question now is “… How much more money can I make doing the same work for a private contractor?”

I don’t lose sleep over the use of contractors by the CIA but I do worry that the aggressiveness of the larger contractors, firms such as CACI, SAIC and others, in recruiting current staffers, only serves to potentially decimate the ranks of the career officers, inflate the overall costs of operations and minimize the control the agency exerts over important activities and operations.

It was one thing when, pre-Sept. 11, the larger private contractors would look to hire retired officers. It’s different when they actively pursue and entice current officers, often with many years of potential staff service ahead of them, away from the agency with the lure of better pay.

Now, being a capitalist, I can’t fault the young and mid-level officers for considering the better paying alternatives. But my impression is that the process has gotten out of control. I’m not particularly confident that anyone inside the agency can accurately state just how many contractors are in their employ, and at what cost.

Looking at the entire intelligence community, the available numbers are revealing. While details of the intel community’s budget are kept secret for good reason, there have been some comments made by officials during the past year that help us do the contracting math. Back in 2005, Mary Margaret Graham, a deputy director of national intelligence, commented during a speech that the annual intelligence budget at the time was approximately $44 billion. During a presentation in May of this year, another executive from the DNI mentioned that private contracting accounts for 70 percent of the intelligence budget.

So let’s extrapolate what we can from the above information. First, we can make the assumption that executives at the DNI have a hard time keeping their collective yap shut. Secondly, and more germane to our topic, 70 percent of $44 billion is roughly $31 billion. So, if we are to believe the DNI, we are spending approximately $31 billion (that looks more impressive when you say $31,000,000,000.00) on contractors in all their various shapes, sizes and services. Huh. That’s a whole lotta private contractor jack.

Before you go calling me an anti-contracting hippie, let me clarify my position. I do not subscribe to the naïve theory that automatically equates all things contracting with all things evil, fraudulent and inefficient. The relationship between the public and private sectors is critical to the overall operation of this country. The government could not operate without the services and dedication of the contracting workforce.

But I am concerned about the extensive and seemingly increasing use of contractors by the CIA. Sept. 11 hit us when we had a shortfall of staff and resources. As a result, there was a very legitimate need to ramp up our reliance on contractors. At the same time, the CIA has worked very hard to build up its internal workforce, recruiting new officers, hiring new analysts, technical specialists and others. That effort to recruit, train and develop the new staff is a time-consuming, labor intensive project.

I’m just wondering if we get to a point where the agency has beefed up its own staff sufficiently and can begin relying less on outside contractors, or if the dependence and reliance on the outside providers becomes so entrenched it never goes away. Clearly there’s an optimum point on the curve where you have the right mix of fixed internal resources and outside service providers.

Given the current estimated costs associated with contracting, the sheer number of contractors providing a variety of services to the agency and what appears to be consistent efforts to recruit active duty officers to the private sector (only to rent them back to the agency at higher costs), I doubt that we’re at or near that optimum point. But that’s just my opinion. Let me know yours. Send your comments and thoughts to peoplesweeklybrief@hotmail.com. Stay safe.

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Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures. In addition, Baker is a writer for a BBC drama to begin production in July 2007.