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Amy Davidson Sorkin
Leaving the Agency, As the Agency Leaves
By Amy Davidson Sorkin
April 13, 2011
What does it mean, these days, to work for the C.I.A.? And who profits from the agency’s work? Julie Tate has a piece in the Washington Post on how
private intelligence firms and security consultants have peeled away veterans from the top reaches of the CIA, hiring scores of longtime officers in large part to gain access to the burgeoning world of intelligence contracting.
Tate (who worked at The New Yorker before heading to the Post—we miss her) notes that resigning does not necessarily mean that a veteran has stopped doing things for the agency, or taking its money. She describes a firm, Abraxas, founded by Richard “Hollis” Helms, who had been head of the C.I.A.’s European division:
“Hollis is brilliant; he realized there was a huge market out there to exploit. He printed money for a while—hired tons of CIA staffers and doubled their salary. He was the first agency guy to figure it all out,” said one former chief of station, the term for the top CIA officer at a U.S. embassy. “You would see people leave the CIA on a Friday and come back on Monday in the same job but working for Abraxas.”
This business model worked, apparently, because the C.I.A. needed more people with certain skills, after September 11th, than it had on hand, and so looked to contractors. But what had been a stopgap now seems to be part of the structure. Thirty per cent of the people working for us in intelligence are now contractors, according to the Post.
As a phenomenon, this is not confined to the C.I.A. We have a tendency, as a nation, to begrudge public employees every dollar of their salaries, only to hand over large sums to private contracting firms—paying more money, getting less oversight and control. (The distance from this story to Medicare vouchers is not so great.) Rather than investing in agents, we rent operatives.
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This has also changed the Agency, Tate writes:
“Since 9/11, the demographics of the agency have been out of whack. A number of people left the agency earlier than you would think, and you had a large influx of younger people,” said Robert Grenier, a 27-year agency veteran who is now chairman of ERG Partners, a boutique investment bank specializing in the intelligence industry. “The average experience of an officer now is much lower than it has been traditionally, and that has its effects on the agency.”
What happens when the most senior and experienced person in a room, discussing what should happen next, is someone whose main obligation is not to the public, but to shareholders? Are they quite clear about our treaty obligations regarding torture? Do they care, really, if their actions cause bad feelings toward America? We give intelligence agencies an enormous amount of leeway to operate in the dark; in whose hands are we putting our own reputation? One of the many questions in the case of Raymond Davis—who shot two men dead in the streets of Lahore, Pakistan—was who, exactly, he worked for; he was, reportedly, some sort of contractor working for or with the C.I.A. The case continues to cause a great deal of anger there, and also led Pakistan to push the C.I.A. away: “In all, about 335 American personnel—C.I.A. officers and contractors and Special Operations forces—were being asked to leave the country, said a Pakistani official closely involved in the decision,” the Times reported. That’s another sort of exodus, one with its own costs.
Amy Davidson Sorkin has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2014. She has been at the magazine since 1995, and, as a senior editor for many years, focussed on national security, international reporting, and features.
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