WASHINGTON - The Central Intelligence Agency, prodded by Congress as part of a renewed effort to penetrate terrorist groups, has relaxed a 7-year-old internal rule to make it easier for its overseas case officers to work with human rights abusers and other undesirables, lawmakers and officials say.
"If you're going to deal with terrorism, the kind of people we seek information from are not at embassy parties. You've got to get down in the dirt with them," said Alabama Republican Sen. Richard C. Shelby, a comment echoed by other lawmakers. "Look at the Mafia. How did the FBI break them up?"
Responding to the Sept. 11 attacks, the agency also plans to vastly expand its clandestine operations to include a threefold increase in case workers, who recruit foreign spies and serve as their liaison officers.
The CIA also is being pressed by Congress to hire more first-generation Americans from the Middle East and other key areas of interest, where their appearance, language and knowledge of local customs will allow them to blend more easily with the population.
In the past, the agency generally shied away from this candidate pool, concerned about lingering overseas loyalties or possible family ties to terrorist groups.
The changes come against a backdrop of heightened congressional scrutiny of the CIA, the FBI and other intelligence agencies. The House and Senate intelligence committees begin joint closed-door hearings today to determine how much those organizations knew of terrorist activity before Sept. 11.
The CIA came under criticism this week after Newsweek magazine reported that the agency was keeping track of two of the hijackers as far back as January 2000, but failed to take the actions necessary to bar them from the United States.
President Bush, meanwhile, visits the eavesdropping National Security Agency at Fort Meade today, the first president to do so since his father in 1991, the White House said.
Under the new agency guideline for dealing with undesirables, a CIA official stationed overseas can decide on the spot to hire a human rights abuser who might have important information about an impending attack or access to a terrorist group, according to an intelligence official, who said the measure will "speed our ability to obtain information in the fight on terrorism."
Previously, CIA case officers were required to notify top CIA officials in Washington before hiring a human rights abuser as an agent, a measure some lawmakers, intelligence analysts and former CIA operatives viewed as cumbersome.
There is still an element of central control under the new guideline. Several days after a human rights abuser is hired, the CIA's deputy director of operations must be notified and has the authority to terminate the relationship with the agent, the official said.
A strong message
Though the change might seem minor, lawmakers view it as sending a strong message through the CIA leadership that field agents need to be more aggressive in fighting terrorism, even if it means dealing with drug dealers, murderers and other human rights abusers.
The 1995 guideline was triggered by activity in Guatemala in the 1990s, when CIA officials failed to inform Congress of paid informants who were torturers, murderers and kidnappers. After the guideline was issued, foreign spies who were considered human rights abusers were thrown off the agency payroll in what officials termed an "asset scrub."
Crafted by then CIA Director John M. Deutch, the guideline was part of his effort to make the agency more accountable to Congress and less susceptible to charges of abuse. Spying, he said, must conform to "American interests and values."
But Shelby, the senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, charged that the 1995 rule "put the handcuffs" on CIA field officers trying to do their jobs, while the GOP chairman of the House intelligence panel, Rep. Porter J. Goss of Florida, termed it "yesterday's wisdom."
Reached at MIT, where he is a professor, Deutch declined to comment on the change.
Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, who at the time was among the strongest advocates of a strict accounting of contacts with human rights abusers, disagreed with the concerns of his colleagues. The Deutch rule was not designed to prevent CIA field officers from penetrating terrorist groups, he said.
Dealing with murderers and drug dealers might produce information "not worth the diplomatic embarrassment," said Torricelli.
CIA officials, meanwhile, told lawmakers last fall that they have never turned down a request from a field officer asking to recruit anyone in a terrorist organization.
As for beefing up the agency, the Directorate of Operations, the section that oversees the handling of foreign spies, will increase by about 25 percent over the next five years, said Tom Crispell, an agency spokesman.
Although the exact number of employees in the directorate and the agency itself is classified, the entire CIA work force is estimated at 19,000, said government sources.
Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the number of CIA case officers is expected to triple by 2004 from what it was in the late 1990s. At that time, according to a former case officer, the agency employed about 900 such officials overseas, working out of U.S. embassies or under what the CIA calls "non-official cover," for example, posing as a businessman or a college professor.
Shelby said there will be a "substantial increase" in CIA funding to train and equip the added case officers and pay foreign agents. Though he and others declined to specify the costs, officials said funding is expected to reach at least several hundred million dollars for next year alone.
A $35 billion job
The entire annual intelligence budget - which besides the CIA covers NSA; the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds surveillance satellites; and Pentagon intelligence agencies - is now about $35 billion.
As for hiring practices, lawmakers conceded that there are legitimate security concerns, but the agency must try harder to recruit first-generation Americans from Middle Eastern countries and other troubled regions.
"I think we ought to cast off the attitude we can't look at first-generation Americans," said Graham. "There has been a reticence [by the agency] based on a concern of loyalty."
"We need the first generation," said Goss. "We need to take advantage of the opportunities."
The CIA has been inundated with requests for job applications since the Sept. 11 attacks, about 100,000 through last week, said Crispell, the agency spokesman. During the same period the year before, the CIA received about 36,000 application requests.
The agency's human intelligence arm has eroded in the past several decades, said lawmakers and former CIA officials, through personnel cutbacks - particularly during the Carter and Clinton presidencies - a greater reliance on satellites and eavesdropping, and a series of congressional investigations that hobbled the spy agency.
The human angle
Even before Sept. 11 there was a steady drumbeat of official reports calling for a renewed emphasis on human intelligence. The House Armed Services Committee, investigating the October 2000 attack in Yemen on the USS Cole, said more human intelligence is needed to penetrate terrorist cells and divine the intentions of leaders.
That was the same conclusion of a February 2001 report of another commission, headed by former Sens. Warren B. Rudman and Gary Hart. And a year earlier, the congressionally chartered National Commission on Terrorism said recruiting human intelligence sources should be among the "highest priorities" in fighting terrorism and called for rescinding the Deutch rule.
But CIA critics are worried about the planned expansion and the easing of restrictions on dealing with unsavory foreigners, concerned that the agency will return to its troubled past, when it plotted assassinations and destabilized governments from Central America to the Middle East - much, if not all, at the urging of various presidents.
"I'm very concerned about it. I believe the CIA has been a government unto itself," said Jennifer Harbury, a Baltimore-born lawyer and wife of a leftist Guatemalan guerrilla whose 1992 murder led to the Deutch rule. Among those alleged to have taken part in the killing was a Guatemalan colonel on the CIA's payroll.
"I think a number of things are necessary to properly protect national security," said Harbury. "Aiding and abetting terrorism abroad is not one of them."
Lee H. Hamilton, a former Indiana congressman who chaired the House Intelligence Committee, expressed similar sentiments. "You've got to be very careful when you're dealing with unsavory characters," he said, noting that their past behavior makes their information suspect and the long-term consequences for foreign policy might not be worth the relationships. "This is an area where full speed ahead is not the right advice."
Aversion to risk
But some lawmakers and former CIA officials said the Deutch rule contributed to a long-standing "risk-averse" culture at the agency. They said congressional probes and allegations of wrongdoing over the years led some CIA case officers in the field to focus on filing quarterly reports rather than trying to aggressively recruit agents or penetrate terrorist groups in allied countries.
"Maybe the CIA leadership didn't think [the Deutch rule] was a problem. Certainly the agents in the field thought it was a problem," said Goss, a former CIA officer. "No one's going to risk their careers."
Said one former CIA official, "If you fire a few guys, the rest of the case officers in the field will sit around and read the newspapers. Case officers have a great knack for pulling in their horns."
Robert Baer, a CIA officer for 21 years, left in disgust in 1997 and wrote about his experiences in the recent book See No Evil.
Baer said that while he served in the Middle East he was at times thwarted by supervisors for trying to burrow into terrorist groups. He maintained that his bosses at the CIA lacked the field experience to lead the agency in the fight against terrorist groups. They were afraid of offending allies, getting agents killed or incurring the wrath of Congress, he wrote.
"It's hard to change the culture," Baer said in an interview. "Shelby's on the right track, but it's going to take a while."
Goss estimated that it would take five to seven years before a trained case officer can have a stable of foreign agents.