MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
Whether in Pakistan or Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world, all American overseas spying operations are now being coordinated by one office.
Sixteen months ago, intelligence officials announced the creation of the National Clandestine Service. The new service is based at the CIA. It has swallowed up the agency's clandestine service, long known as the directorate of operations. But its mission is broader than the CIA. The NCS is supposed to coordinate all overseas spying activities, and keep CIA, FBI and Pentagon spies from working at cross purposes.
NPR's Mary Louise Kelly has been investigating how the NCS is working out.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: The basic idea behind the National Clandestine Service is to improve human intelligence - that is, spies on the ground. Good human intelligence is crucial, because as a veteran spies - such as former CIA officer Bruce Reidel - will tell you satellites and other high-tech gear only gets you so far.
BRUCE REIDEL: All the technical means of collection in the world will give you a good idea of someone's capabilities. But they're not going to give you a good idea of someone's intentions. Only human intelligence, generally, can give you that kind of information.
LOUISE KELLY: But on really tough targets - North Korea, Iran, al-Qaida's inner circle - U.S. officials privately acknowledge that human intelligence has been weak, and there's been feuding among the different government agencies involved. Traditionally, this is CIA turf, but human spying activities are increasingly being carried out by the FBI's national security branch and by Pentagon teams.
This had led to problems. There was the accidental 2004 shootout in Paraguay, for example, involving a military special forces team that then had to be whisked from the country. Intelligence insiders say there have been other occasions when special forces teams launched secret missions without telling the CIA, sometimes, to the detriment of active CIA operations.
The point of the new National Clandestine Service is to coordinate all these efforts. So is it working?
KIT BOND: Well, we're waiting to see.
LOUISE KELLY: That's Kit Bond, the senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. In an interview in his office in the Capitol, Bond made clear his view that there are still a lot of problems. For example, he says standards for tradecraft - espionage techniques - aren't uniformly applied.
BOND: We have seen and continue to see cases where the tradecraft is sloppy. The don't do their work properly.
LOUISE KELLY: And, Bond says, last year there were problems with spies out in the field not getting good support from headquarters. Bond says all CIA case officers overseas are supposed to have a number of support officers watching their back.
BOND: And that number was way short, so a case officer cannot be effective unless there are support officers.
LOUISE KELLY: Several former CIA officials interviewed for this report second Senator Bond's concerns. One, who declined to be named, says the good news is, they've never had so much money and so many young people out in the field. But he adds, I'm still pessimistic. Nobody thinks creating the NCS has solved the underlying problems.
Both the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the record for this story. But two current senior intelligence officials agreed to sit down for an interview on condition they not be identified by name. They say Senator Bond and other critics are asking the right questions, but they argue the NCS has made progress.
On the issue of support for case officers in the field, the officials point out that technology and new forms of cover for spies are reducing the number of support staff needed.
On tradecraft, one official insists, quote, "We're all over tradecraft like a cheap suit. Mistakes will be made, sure, but are we all over tradecraft every day of every week? Yes."
On clashes between CIA and the Pentagon, the official says it's no secret there have been issues, but quote, "The relationship is better than it's ever been."
Asked whether that's due in part to the recent departures of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his undersecretary for intelligence, Stephen Cambone, the intelligence official nods, then adds, but I think this is bigger than one or two personalities on either side of the river.
There's no question other hurdles remain - recruiting people with key language skills, for example. That's an area Mike McConnell promised to focus on when he was sworn in last week as the new director of national intelligence.
MIKE MCCONNELL: The old policies have hampered some common sense reforms, such as hiring first and second generation Americans who possess native language skills, cultural insights and a keen understanding of the threats we face.
LOUISE KELLY: Bruce Riedel, the CIA veteran, believes investments in human intelligence and the National Clandestine Service will pay off, though it may take five or 10 years. We're right to invest in human intelligence, because without it, we're blind, Riedel says. But we shouldn't expect 20/20 vision overnight. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.
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