As CIA Director Porter Goss tries to rebuild the agency's global operations, he faces a shortage of experienced spies created by a post-September 11 stampede to the private sector.
Goss, who a year ago inherited a CIA wracked by criticism of intelligence failures over Iraq and the September 11, 2001, attacks, has come under fire from critics about the publicized departures of several high-level clandestine officers.
Reform advocates see the loss of senior officials as a natural consequence of changes intended to root out an old guard blamed for lapses that prompted Congress to put the CIA under a new director of national intelligence, John Negroponte.
But current and former officials say Goss does face problems stemming from the agency's reliance on a robust private contracting market for skilled intelligence and security workers that has grown more lucrative since the September 11, 2001, attacks and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
"Goss realizes he has a major problem in the (clandestine service) because he's having major bailouts among the old guard and also retention problems all the way down the ranks," said a former clandestine officer.
Experienced spies have been leaving the CIA in droves, often to return the next day as better paid, green-badged private contractors, current and former officials say.
But as contractors, they can no longer supervise fresh recruits at a time when the CIA is pursuing a 50 percent increase in spies. Nor can they supplement a pool of experienced operatives from which the agency traditionally draws its top leaders.
"It's frankly scary to look at the number of middle managers that are diving out with 10, 15, 20 years in because they're going to make $175,000 or $200,000," said a intelligence official who views the trend as byproduct of low morale among clandestine staff officers.
A $200,000-a-year contracting salary compares with annual pay of about $135,000 for experienced CIA staffers at the very top of the scale used to set federal salaries in Washington.
CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Millerwise Dyck said Goss is determined to stem the trend toward private contracting by rebuilding the blue-badged workforce as CIA operations expand worldwide.
Officials say the U.S. Congress set the stage for today's shortage of experienced staff by ordering a 17 percent across-the-board reduction in agency personnel in the mid-1990s after the Cold War.
To supplement the clandestine ranks, Goss issued an appeal to former senior intelligence officers over the summer to consider returning to help train new recruits.
But already, inexperienced clandestine officers have shown up at the CIA's Baghdad and Kabul stations in numbers that some current and former officials find worrying.
But Goss' success could depend on how he is perceived by the remaining clandestine staff.
He has been portrayed as a director struggling against opposition from clandestine officers who some say are offended by his reliance on a personal staff known to insiders as the "Gosslings," Reuters reports.
Added a former clandestine officer with long experience in world hot spots: "The old CIA is finished. What happens now, I don't know."