The National Clandestine Service is supposed to coordinate all overseas spying activities, and keep CIA, FBI and Pentagon spies from working at cross purposes.
Pentagon teams are growing, and that's led to problems. Intelligence insiders say that Special Forces teams have launched secret missions without telling the CIA — sometimes to the detriment of active CIA operations. In 2004, for example, an accidental shootout in Paraguay involved a military Special Forces team that then had to be whisked from the country.
Sen. Kit Bond, the senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, says they're still waiting to see whether the NSC is working as intended. He cites several problems, including sloppy spy work and spies in the field not getting good support from headquarters.
All CIA case officers overseas are supposed to have a number of support officers watching their back.
"And that number was way short," Bond says. "So, a case officer cannot be effective unless there are support officers."
Several former CIA officials interviewed for this report second Sen. Bond's concerns.
"The good news is, they've never had so much money and so many young people out in the field," says one former official, who declined to be named. 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. But two senior intelligence officials agreed to sit down for an interview, on condition they not be identified by name.
They say Sen. 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, the term for spying techniques, one official insists, "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."
The official says it's no secret that there have been clashes between the CIA and the Pentagon. But he says, "The relationship is better than it's ever been."
When he was sworn in last week as the new director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell promised to focus on recruiting people with key language skills.
"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," McConnell says.
Human intelligence, or on-the-ground spies, has been weak where it's been needed most — against al-Qaida, Iran and North Korea. Good human intelligence is crucial because satellites and other high-tech gear only get you so far.
"All the technical means of collection in the world will give you a good idea of someone's capabilities," says former CIA officer Bruce Riedel. "But they're not gonna give you a good idea of someone's intentions. Only human intelligence generally can give you that kind of information."
Riedel believes investments in human intelligence and the new National Clandestine Service will pay off, but it may take five or ten 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."