MARGARET WARNER: In the early days of the Cold War, the CIA excelled at the cloak-and-dagger side of spycraft, human intelligence collection on the ground. It was the agency's strength, and the stuff of film legend.
ACTOR: My department authorized me to engage you to do some work for us.
ACTRESS: Why should I?
MARGARET WARNER: But today it's clear that bad human collection was a major culprit in the two big recent U.S. intelligence disasters: 9/11 and Iraq's nonexistent weapons stockpiles. The commission investigating the Iraq WMD blunder was scathing.
JUDGE LAURENCE SILBERMAN: So the bottom line answer is, they had very little collection.
FORMER SEN. CHARLES ROBB: They clearly had an opportunity to do a good job with respect to tradecraft, and didn't
MARGARET WARNER: So fixing human spycraft is one of the toughest challenges facing John Negroponte, the new director of national intelligence.
JOHN NEGROPONTE: Our intelligence effort has to generate better results. That is my mandate, plain and simple.
MARGARET WARNER: But what exactly is the problem? Several former spies have shed their cloaks, though not their daggers, to address that in books about their CIA years. They describe an agency that simply hasn't adapted the art of human spying to today's world.
We met two of them in a Washington neighborhood whose parks were a favorite locale for Cold War espionage, to talk about what Negroponte faces. Lindsay Moran wrote "Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy" after just five years with the agency.
LINDSAY MORAN: The agency has relied on really dated methods of espionage and training for way too long.
MARGARET WARNER: Melissa Boyle Mahle, who penned "Denial and Deception" after a 14-year CIA career, reached much the same conclusion.
MELISSA BOYLE MAHLE: They do not want to a change to their methods. They don't want to change their power structure, because it's all very well-ingrained for the last 50 years.
MARGARET WARNER: Both women joined the CIA with impressive credentials and dreams of serving their country. Both endured the CIA's clandestine operative training camp in Virginia, known as "The Farm."
The Berkeley-educated, Arabic-speaking Mahle then went under diplomatic cover to the Middle East, ultimately rising to the rank of CIA chief in Jerusalem. She was forced out in 2002 over an unreported contact with a Palestinian militant.
The Harvard-educated Moran took her Serbo-Croatian language skills to the Balkans in the tense years after the Kosovo War. But after a brief stint back at Langley headquarters, she quit the agency in frustration in 2003.
MARGARET WARNER: What's wrong with spycraft at the agency, the human intelligence side?
MELISSA BOYLE MAHLE: The real problem is that the agency hasn't updated its methods since the end of the Cold War, and we're stuck doing things old-fashioned ways. And we're not thinking outside of a box and trying to say, you know, "We have a new target set; how are we going to go after it in a very aggressive way, in a different kind of way so they don't see us coming?"
MARGARET WARNER: Give me an example of doing something the old way, something from your own experience.
MELISSA BOYLE MAHLE: Sending our officers out to work the diplomatic circuit and to think that on this diplomatic circuit overseas we're going to meet terrorists, or we're going to meet narco-traffickers, or we're going to meet proliferators. We're just not going to find them there. We don't look like the right people. We're not speaking the right languages, and we're not going to really the ends of the earth where we need to be.
MARGARET WARNER: The failures begin, they said, with the recruiting process for clandestine officers.
LINDSAY MORAN: There was nobody in my training class who spoke any of the languages that the CIA needs to go after terrorist groups, such as Arabic, Pashtu or Urdu. Also, the agency has completely ignored a whole pool of potential employees of second-generation Americans who a lot of times are just as patriotic-- if not more so-- than people whose families came over on the "Mayflower."
And because there's this inherent distrust of foreigners within the agency, they're unwilling to hire these kinds of people, exactly the kinds of people that we need in order to gather effective intelligence in the Middle East.
MARGARET WARNER: Mahle spent a year recruiting other officers, and was appalled at how often the agency preferred hiring white Midwesterners who'd had no contacts with any foreigners ever.
MELISSA BOYLE MAHLE: I'd be very excited if I had people that I was going to be talking to that were native Arabic speakers, particularly native Arabic speakers, because we were looking for them, or Pashtu speakers, or even Chinese Americans or Korean Americans.
And, you know, I'd run them through all the loops, hoops, and test them to see if they could do the job, if they had, you know, the intuitive capabilities. And I would say, "Okay, this guy or this gal passes muster." And then you'd send them through security or psychological testing, and they would get washed out.
MARGARET WARNER: And why?
MELISSA BOYLE MAHLE: We were penetrated by a mole, and, therefore, we're so frightened of anybody that might have loyalties elsewhere, we overcompensate. And that's to the loss of the capabilities of the agency.
MARGARET WARNER: She was shocked when she attended the graduation of the first post-9/11 class of recruits.
MELISSA BOYLE MAHLE: It was a sea of white faces. And you know why? Because they were easily cleared. We wanted to have a big first class after 9/11 to make the point. And I think they made the wrong point.
MARGARET WARNER: Next came training, and a lot of it-- not just the paramilitary exercises, but the recruitment role playing-- seemed dated, too.
LINDSAY MORAN: Well, I think that all of us in my training class were rather unimpressed, because, as I said, we knew that terrorism was the primary threat. This notion that particularly young female case officers, that we would be able to target men in the Middle East and take them out to lunch or dinner, I think is realistic if you're going after one kind of target. But to really go after terrorist groups, I don't think that's a realistic way of infiltrating or even targeting a terrorist group.
MARGARET WARNER: Once overseas, their main job wasn't to spy themselves, but to recruit foreigners to betray secret information. Even after 9/11, Moran found there were red lines she couldn't cross.
LINDSAY MORAN: I started to target someone who, although he wasn't a terrorist himself, had ties to terrorist networks or Islamist extremist groups, and was writing back to headquarters asking for their approval to go ahead and develop this person and potentially recruit him as a foreign agent.
And I received a missive from headquarters saying, "We found out that this person has ties to terrorist groups. Cease and desist all contact with him." And I was astounded, and I think my boss in the field was equally as astounded, but we both felt sort of powerless to do anything about it.
Another problem that I saw there was a culture that I think rewards quantity over quality. For instance, we were all made to believe that our career progression depended solely on the number of recruitments that we could accrue.
MARGARET WARNER: No matter how good or bad the quality of his information is?
LINDSAY MORAN: Yes. I argued for the termination of a case that I was running in the Balkans, where this person was really peddling pretty useless information and receiving a very substantial salary from the CIA. And this was post-Sept. 11, so the information was particularly irrelevant.
And I kept arguing to terminate this case; that this person should not be on the CIA payroll and was told again and again by headquarters, "No, you should be keep running the case." And ultimately the reasoning that headquarters gave me, or that the management at headquarters gave me, was "This looks good for your career."
And that's when I felt just completely disillusioned with the agency. It occurred to me that most American taxpayers probably don't care what's good for my career progression. They want quality intelligence.
MARGARET WARNER: So she wasn't surprised when the WMD Commission found that the CIA had relied on bogus weapons information fed by dishonest Iraqi informants.
LINDSAY MORAN: I think the example of "curve ball," upon whom it seems we based our entire decision to go to war in this, ended up being a really unreliable source. That's a perfect example of how the quality of recruitments and the quality of information is not properly assessed.
MARGARET WARNER: Mahle had equally disheartening run-ins with Langley. She was sent to Qatar in 1995 to determine if al-Qaida figure Khalid Sheik Mohammad was, as reported, hiding there.
MELISSA BOYLE MAHLE: We didn't know very much about him, but we did know that he had been somehow involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and also in the Philippines airplane plot. Anyway, so I go out. I determined that, yes, indeed, this is the guy.
MARGARET WARNER: She urged Langley to snatch him rather than formally request extradition because she didn't trust the Qatari authorities. But Washington went the official extradition route, and, as she had predicted, Khalid Sheik Mohammad disappeared. So how did you feel about that?
MELISSA BOYLE MAHLE: I was upset beyond, because I realized this guy was very dangerous, and I realized we had let a terrorist go free, and it didn't have to turn out that way. You've got to ask yourself, if he had been picked up in 1995, the guy who had the idea of hijacking lots of airplanes and the guy who had the idea of running, of blowing up tall towers in New York City, would 9/11 have happened?
MARGARET WARNER: So, Melissa, what is your analysis of what the problem is at headquarters?
MELISSA BOYLE MAHLE: We have managers whose job is to manage out risk. We have other managers whose job is to check to make sure those other managers have managed out risk. So by the time you, as a field operative, you set forward your great idea, you're going to have it rejected, because ultimately, from their perspective, there's going to be a flap.
MARGARET WARNER: One reviewer described you, Lindsay, as saying, "she expected to find James Bond, and she found James Bureaucrat."
LINDSAY MORAN: We used to joke in our training class that there was this policy at the agency called reverse Darwinism, whereby the most mediocre people would rise to the top; that it wasn't survival of the fittest; the best would end up leaving. And I found that to be true. From my training class, I think the best case officers and potential case officers left within the same span of time that I did, in five years.
MARGARET WARNER: That's why they don't believe adding more spies into the same old system-- by 50 percent as President Bush has ordered-- will solve the problem. What would be your piece of advice to John Negroponte about human intelligence?
LINDSAY MORAN: Well, I think that the agency could certainly start by developing a cadre of spies that is not under official cover. It's riskier, but a lot of people are drawn to this profession because they're drawn to risk.
MARGARET WARNER: Above all, they both endorsed the same bold recommendation: Set up a new elite unit within the existing CIA
LINDSAY MORAN: There's been, you know, a lot of talk: Don't throw the baby out with the bath water, in terms of the CIA; I tend to think that maybe you do have to start over and start a whole new clandestine service.
MELISSA BOYLE MAHLE: If you stand up to a new office or a new director within the CIA And you can say, "Okay, we're going to now do something completely different, and we're going to start small, but we know that it's the future, and you build that new incentive structure where you get rewarded for risk-taking, where you get rewarded for actually, really getting down deep into a society and learning how it works."
And then sooner or later everybody else in the agency is looking around and saying, "Hey, those are the people that are doing the best ops, those are the people that are getting promoted," and then they're going to say, "I want to be a part of that action." And that's how you're going to change the organization.
MARGARET WARNER: It's a tall order for the new DNI.