CIA brain drain: Top staff go to private sector

A man walks across the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency at the lobby of the Original Headquarters Building at CIA headquarters Feb. 19, 2009, in McLean, Va.
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This story was written by Julie Tate

In the decade since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, 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.

At least 91 of the agency's upper-level managers have left for the private sector in the past 10 years, according to data compiled by The Washington Post. Several of the top positions have turned over multiple times in that period: In addition to three directors, the CIA has lost four of its deputy directors for operations, three directors of its counterterrorism center and all five of the division chiefs who were in place the day of the Sept. 11 attacks.

In many quarters in Washington, government officials decamp for the private sector as a matter of course. Defense consultancies routinely hire generals retiring from the Pentagon; the city's lobbying firms are stacked with former members of Congress and administration officials.

But the wave of departures from the CIA has marked an end to a decades-old culture of discretion and restraint in which retired officers, by and large, did not join contractors that perform intelligence work for the government. It has also raised questions about the impact of the losses incurred by the agency. Veteran officers leave with a wealth of institutional knowledge, extensive personal contacts and an understanding of world affairs afforded only to those working at the nation's preeminent repository of intelligence.

Among the CIA's losses to the private sector have been top subject-matter experts including Stephen Kappes, who served as the agency's top spy in Moscow and who helped negotiate Libya's disarmament in 2003; Henry Crumpton, who was one of the CIA's first officers in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks; and Cofer Black, the director of the agency's counterterrorism center on Sept. 11.

The exodus into the private sector has been driven by an explosion in intelligence contracting. As part of its Top Secret America investigation, The Post estimated that of 854,000 people with top-secret clearances, 265,000 are contractors. Thirty percent of the workforce in the intelligence agencies is made up of contractors.

Those contractors perform a wide range of tasks, among them assessing security risks, analyzing intelligence and providing "risk mitigation" services in foreign countries.

"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."

For private firms seeking to tap into the lucrative industry of intelligence contracting, the value of having agency officers on the payroll is hard to overstate. And although the agency pays its top managers large salaries -- the most senior officers make nearly $180,000 a year -- private firms are generally able to offer more.

This report is based on interviews with more than a dozen current and former CIA officials. The Post compiled its list of more than 90 upper-level managers

by identifying agency personnel who left for the private sector after serving as directors, deputy directors or chiefs of the CIA's various divisions, as well as other members of the leadership of the Directorate of Operations, now known as the National Clandestine Service.

CIA spokesman George Little said that "any suggestion that there isn't world-class, senior expertise at the CIA is flat wrong."

"Retirement is a fact of professional life," Little said, "and the CIA has created strong mechanisms to assist our officers as they explore opportunities after retirement and to retain their knowledge before they go."

The bulk of the agency's losses to the private sector came roughly from 2002 through 2007, as business with intelligence contractors spiked. In fiscal 2010, a senior U.S. official said, attrition rates at the CIA were at an all-time low.

Some of the officials quoted for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivities involved in discussing the agency's inner workings.

Few of them cited problems at the agency as their reason for leaving. Rather, they said, the choice was often financially driven.

One former senior official who had worked in government service for more than 25 years said he looked at the opportunities for advancement at the agency on the one hand and at the looming costs of college tuition for his children on the other. He chose the private sector.

"It was a practical matter," he said.