I seem to be getting more and more calls these days from ex-colleagues all lamenting the state of the CIA. They tell me the place is broken, beaten down by Washington politics, bad management, bad morale and political irrelevancy. "Shut it down," half of them tell me.
I don't need to call the CIA to know its response: I'm either hearing voices or talking to malcontents who couldn't make it. We're doing just fine, they would say. The morale couldn't be better; nor could the intelligence. And that's not to mention the new classes of CIA agents who are better than ever.
The last point I completely agree with. Since 9/11, I have regularly gotten calls from very smart, talented people who intend to join the CIA. Competing against their résumés, I would never make the cut today. So I'll split the difference and help the CIA figure out how to keep a new generation from running for the door like I did.
For a start, current management has got to go. For too long it has truckled to power, spending its day scurrying down to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. for orders. If it's not Cheney treating George Tenet as a court jester, it's some analyst badgered until he changes his assessment. What I'm trying to say is that it's not the CIA that is broken, it's Washington which means the quick fix is to build a firewall between a hopelessly partisan Washington and the CIA. And it wouldn't cost much:
1. Move the CIA out of Washington. Maybe to Spokane, Wash. Or at least far enough away from D.C. that directors and the rank and file cannot be summoned to the White House for a browbeating. (See 10 things to do in Washington, D.C.)
2. Give CIA directors tenure, with terms of 10 years. Knowing that he couldn't lose his job, a director would be more inclined to tell the truth. (Under my plan, a director could be removed only by the President for gross incompetence, with the concurrence of Congress.)
3. Take covert action away from the CIA. Covert action is little more than propaganda, which only gets in the way of looking at the world objectively.
4. End the revolving door between the CIA and Beltway bandits in other words, stop the featherbedding. There would be no more resigning from the CIA on Friday afternoon and coming back Monday morning as a contractor making three or four times the salary.
5. Closing that revolving door would mean a serious increase in salaries. We can't ask our spies to live in the back of beyond for 20 years and not pay them a professional's salary.
6. Create two classes of CIA employees. For example, there are hundreds of ethnic American Pashtuns ready to go work for the CIA in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but their murky family and tribal ties prevent them from being hired. However, they could be brought in with lower security clearances. Spies in the field rarely need to see the crown jewels to do their job.
There are obviously a lot of other things that could be fixed at the CIA, such as finding a way to combine databases with the FBI. But on that I'll defer to someone who knows what he is talking about. What I do know is that if we continue to let the White House meddle in intelligence, we'll get another costly war we don't need and ultimately can't win.
Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is TIME.com's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, the novel Blow the House Down