The CIA Is Déclassé

Snobs made better spies.

CIA officials used to have all sorts of irritating habits. If offered a perfectly good Châteauneuf-du-Pape at a Georgetown dinner party, they would praise it–by stressing their dissent from the “universal opinion” that unblended reds are better. If told of an especially good trattoria in Rome, they might express much gratitude for the information–and deplore their own laziness in always going to the same old Sabatini they had first encountered while vacationing in Italy with their parents. Even more irritating was the propensity of first-generation CIA officials for interjecting into any remotely relevant conversation memories of Groton, Yale, or skiing holidays in St. Moritz.

There is none of that sort of thing anymore. Today’s CIA people are not wine snobs–in fact, many of them prefer beer, while others refrain from even coffee, as befits good Mormons. Nor are they partial to foreign foods in funky trattorias–cheeseburgers are more their style. Instead of being Ivy League showoffs, they are quietly proud of their state colleges, however obscure these might be.

Unfortunately, much good has also been lost along the way, including that easy familiarity that comes from an early acquaintance with foreign ways. It is one thing to read up on, say, current French policy for the airliner industry, and to start from scratch. It is quite another if the new information is layered over personal experiences with things French going back to teen-age visits, junior-year-abroad touring, or even years of residence with expatriate parents.

This deficiency might be what Tony Lake had in mind when, in the course of his abortive confirmation hearings, he remarked that the CIA’s “pool of talent, particularly in languages and cultural knowledge, is getting very thin.” The Clinton administration had little difficulty in replacing Lake as its candidate to head the CIA. The CIA is much less likely to overcome its personnel problem, which affects its quality as an intelligence organization far more than the choice of the next director ever could.

W hen it comes to the operational side of the CIA’s work–mostly the recruitment of agents in place–it is certainly more difficult to strike just the right tone with a foreign diplomat or functionary without a broader background than can be gained in Salt Lake City or Dayton. Of course, most of the people whom CIA officials must strive to understand–or recruit–are not suave Europeans but rather Middle Eastern thugs, Russian weapons traffickers, Chinese bureaucrats, Latin American officers, and the like. But even with these folks, the challenge is to interpret and manipulate motivations, urges, obsessions, and priorities that drastically diverge from those prevalent among the middle classes of middle America, the source of most CIA recruits today.

To be sure, there is plenty of talent all over the United States and in every level of society. Yet, a narrow provincialism seems to be the hallmark of younger CIA officials. One reason is simply that applicants are much more likely to be approved by the CIA’s security investigators if they have lived in one place all their lives, with no prior foreign travel or foreign contacts (each of which must be reported in detail, no matter how routine the travel or how casual the contact). Moreover, there seems to be a distinct preference for applicants who resemble the security investigators themselves–exceptionally sober people who have never danced in a London disco, never had a Japanese girlfriend or a Brazilian boyfriend, and never tried smoking pot while in college.

In other words, the CIA is now screening out exactly the sort of people it used to actively recruit: venturesome young Americans with as much foreign experience as possible.

Because espionage is such a small part of the business of intelligence–as compared with the purely intellectual work of analysis–none of the above would matter very much if the CIA could still attract the smartest graduates from the best universities. But those days are long past. The Ivy League graduates who used to fill its ranks now mostly want to become investment bankers: It is there that the adventure lies–as well as the money, of course. Nothing can be done about that. But the CIA could do much better if it pursued diversity in its recruiting, not the by-the-numbers diversity of so many women or Hispanics or African-Americans but, rather, a diversity of experience.

Plenty of young Americans have lived abroad from childhood with their corporate-executive parents, and many others have done so as post-college volunteers for Third World relief and developmental outfits. Many thousands of young Americans currently live in Moscow, Prague, and other Eastern European capitals, enjoying the excitements of their post-Communist transition, excitements that include the abundance of attractive sexual partners eager to connect with Westerners. At present, most such applicants are rejected if they seek to join the CIA, as are nontypical applicants in general–security investigators find that their background is just too complicated.

One reject was asked earnestly why on earth he had gone to live in Prague after graduation, surviving on odd jobs instead of starting a career back home. When he jokingly responded with “girls,” the investigators did not conceal their shocked disapproval. When he dropped the ill-received jocularity to say that he had wanted, having grown up in the Midwest, to live awhile in one of the world’s most beautiful cities, they were openly disbelieving–they had never been to Prague of course, and apparently, they did not know of its architectural splendors, either.

Amore egregious case is that of an adventurous and quite brilliant young woman. She had worked for a refugee-relief project in the most lawless region of South Asia before finding her way into an even more dangerous part of the world–one of great importance for U.S. foreign policy. She became so interested in the area’s ongoing struggle and the local culture that she decided to study it systematically, exiting from her marriage to return there. She made a great number of friends, from village women to guerrilla leaders, multiplying the number of “foreign contacts” she faithfully reported on the security form required of all CIA applicants. That in the process she had learned what makes the locals tick–as well as a language known to few, if any, CIA officials–was of no account: Her chances of being hired would have been much better if she had remained celibate in Salt Lake City.

The nondrinking, nonsmoking, noncarousing, and mostly monolingual CIA officials of today do not have the vices of either their more adventurous contemporaries or their flamboyant Ivy League predecessors, but it is really unfair to expect them to cope with all those foreigners out there.