New Intel Chief: Wrong for the Job

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Jay L. Clendenin / Pool / Getty

Mike McConnell (R), nominee for Director of National Intelligence, speaks while outgoing Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte looks on.

More than five years after 9/11, the CIA is still not out of the woods. And it's unlikely that President Bush's choice to be the new director of national intelligence, retired vice admiral Mike McConnell, is going to offer much help finding the way out.

When McConnell was director of the National Security Agency from 1992 to 1996, he left no doubt that he didn't particularly like the CIA. He didn't understand how the place worked. He didn't trust the information it collected from its clandestine sources (humint, as it's called in the business). And he thought the CIA caused more mess than it was worth. As far as McConnell was concerned, the NSA collected all the intelligence the United States needed.

After McConnell left the NSA, he never lost his taste for technology. Joining Booz Allen Hamilton, the mega consulting firm, McConnell spent the next 10 years selling gadgets and software to the government. In 2002, Booz Allen won a $63 million "data mining" contract with the Pentagon. The general idea behind it was that if you sift through enough public data, you can spot a terrorist, and McConnell was a strong backer of the program. But Booz Allen's contract was cancelled when civil libertarians objected to the government going though Americans' personal records without a warrant.

McConnell's other prejudice that is not going to help the CIA is the outsourcing of intelligence. The CIA is hemorrhaging people, with the vast majority leaving to work for contractors, like Booz Allen. They're lured by higher salaries and double dipping (on top of their government retirement packages). They often end back up at the CIA with a green contractor's badge, doing pretty much the same job. The important difference is they answer to the company they work for, not the CIA.

I'm told that today contractors outnumber staff employees. As one CIA officer told me, "You walk in the building and all you see is green badges, all doing the retiree shuffle, keeping their heads down, focusing on holding on to their jobs."

Playing the devil's advocate, I asked a senior CIA officer: So what if the CIA is run by contractors? Maybe McConnell is right.

"You know as well as I do," he said. "Contractors won't take risks. You can't send them out into the field to recruit new sources. They know they make a mistake and they're gone." He's right. It's a lot easier to replace a contractor than it is to fire a government employee.

It's unlikely McConnell is going to see this as a particular problem. After all, McConnell's NSA couldn't exist without the technology developed by private companies and contractors.

Rank and file at the CIA will look at McConnell's appointment as part of a trend shifting intelligence away from human sources, the CIA's bread and butter, to the Pentagon, the NSA, technology and outsourcing.

It's not that the CIA doesn't understand the uses of technology. It's just that it understands its limits. Data mining works well if Osama bin Laden decides to renew his Visa card or cash in his frequent flier miles. But bin Laden, like most terrorists, has dropped off the digital grid. To find him you need a warm body, not just cool gear.

Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is the author of See No Evil and, most recently, the novel Blow the House Down.