WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Like thousands of other Americans in this time of corporate belt-tightening, Jim Waller has just taken a buyout, a one-time cash payment as an incentive to retire early.
"I'm 54. I had put in 34 years," Mr. Waller said. "It was a very hard decision. I agonized until the last minute. . . . But I feel like I'm getting a start on a new career."
That would all seem ordinary except for one thing. Mr. Waller's employer is not just another company but, as it is known to insiders, "The Company": the CIA.
Earlier this year the CIA, in the first buyout in its history, offered up to $25,000 in cash to as many as 400 people if they would retire. In response, roughly 600 agency employees signed up.
Too many ready to go
That was more than the agency felt it could afford to let go at one time, and it asked some to postpone their departures until next year. Beyond that, CIA officials say there may be at least one more round of buyouts sometime in the next three or four years.
The buyout program is just one sign of what is happening at the CIA now that its old archenemy, the Soviet Union, is no more. The agency also is trimming its payrolls through early retirements and attrition.
At the same time, as its intelligence missions change with the end of the Cold War, the CIA also is trying to make room to hire new specialists in fields such as economics and Asian and African languages. To open up some hiring slots, the agency is paring down job categories that are no longer as critical as they once were.
Mr. Waller had been on the agency's security staff, assigned to make sure outside companies doing contract work for the CIA were as watchful and hush-hush as the agency itself. Now that the Soviet KGB is no longer on the prowl, the agency presumably no longer needs as big a security staff as it once did. (In the tradition of the agency, CIA officials asked that Mr. Waller's real name not be used.)
The CIA is going to great lengths to avoid layoffs.
"The buyouts help us to avoid involuntary separations," said Jim Seacord of the CIA's personnel office. "The focus is on doing things that allow people to leave under as pleasant circumstances as possible."
Not just morale
The motivation for that policy is more than maintaining high staff morale. Some top CIA officials and the agency's supporters in Congress maintain that agents who leave unhappily could become targets of recruitment by other nations' intelligence services. At the very least, this argument goes, disgruntled ex-agents might write books or talk publicly about what they see as agency shortcomings.
CIA Director R. James Woolsey raised the specter of enemy recruitment last spring when he persuaded Congress to approve the buyout program, according to Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The director "raised delicately the difficult subject of the counterintelligence impact of involuntary separations, expressing concern that forcing out large numbers of CIA employees involuntarily would increase the risk that an employee who had access to sensitive intelligence secrets might fail to maintain his or her obligation to protect those secrets," Mr. Warner told his Senate colleagues.
Such fears may be exaggerated. Some analysts wonder whether the threat of fired and disloyal agents spilling the beans to rival intelligence services is as great now as the CIA felt it might be during the heyday of the KGB.
The last staff cutbacks of any consequence at the CIA were in the late 1970s under President Jimmy Carter, when some older spies and other field operatives in the espionage division were laid off or forced to retire. Some agency veterans still blame those layoffs for the tumult of that period.
But former CIA Director Stansfield Turner, who was in charge of this earlier downsizing, maintains that its impact is much greater in hindsight than it was at the time. For one thing, he said, "there is no evidence that any people affected by my reduction ever turned into an enemy agent.
"The idea that the CIA shouldn't ever fire anyone is a hangover from MI-6, the British intelligence service," Mr. Turner said in an interview. "And Britain's record on preventing foreign penetration of their intelligence services is far worse than ours."
This time, the staff cutbacks are not aimed only at the spy services but spread throughout the agency. Last year, Congress ordered the CIA to reduce its staff by 17.5 percent over the five-year period from 1993 through 1997. The agency has always refused to release official figures on the size of its staff, although unofficial estimates have put it at about 17,000.
One CIA official explained that the buyouts were being offered to employees in "surplus skill areas" -- such as low-skilled jobs that have been or are being replaced by computers and automation. Some of these jobs are at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., and some at agency stations or field offices overseas.
Mr. Seacord, who heads what is called the Career Center in the CIA's personnel office, said the agency also was trying to help its departing employees get jobs in the private sector.