The problem existed even before Congress and the White House approved an intelligence restructuring this month that creates positions for people whose skills already are in high demand.
There is no consensus across the nation's 15 intelligence agencies on where staffing needs are the most acute. But few dispute that many more analysts are needed, particularly in the departments and agencies created since Sept. 11, 2001. The nearly two-year-old Homeland Security Department is a prime example.
"If you had a hundred, we'd take them," Pat Hughes, the Homeland Security Department's top intelligence official, said in an interview earlier this year. "We have to look, search, test, assess. You don't just get analysts off a tree. ... We need people, but we need good people."
To find them, Homeland Security and other agencies are heading to job fairs, often looking near military bases where civil service is part of the culture and people may have security clearances. They're also trying to snag people from the private sector.
Congress also is offering sweeteners.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., created the intelligence community's answer to GI Bills and other military scholarships. Under the program, undergraduate and graduate students can receive up to $50,000 for two years of tuition if they agree to take needed jobs in an intelligence agency for up to three years.
This year, slots for 150 students were divided among the agencies, using $4 million from Congress. Some $6 million will be available next year.
Being an analyst is almost an academic profession — part taught, part absorbed, part intuition — that requires weighing volumes of information and boiling it down into reports for policy-makers in the executive branch and Congress.
Among the most classified and most important reports are national intelligence estimates, which draw on information across government and are written by leading analysts at the National Intelligence Council.
It was the council that produced the October 2002 estimate on the threat posed by Iraq, with its overblown assessment on weapons stockpiles.
Statistics on precisely how many analysts are needed are hard to come by. Almost universally, agencies say such numbers are classified.
President Bush ordered the CIA in November to double the number of analysts it employs. The agency won't say how that equates to new jobs.
Beginning several years ago, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which studies imagery from spy satellites and other systems, started hiring about 900 analysts, spokesman David Burpee said.
Most will join the agency between next year and 2009. In addition, the Defense Intelligence Agency plans to hire 1,000 midlevel to senior civilians next year, mostly analysts, in jobs with starting salaries between $53,000 and $74,000.
And the National Security Agency, the nation's code breakers and code protectors, hopes to hire more than 6,000 people by 2009, on top of 1,300 hired by the end of September. The secretive agency won't say how many will be analysts.
DIA spokesman Donald Black said there is more competition to hire analysts since the Sept. 11 attacks, especially for people who speak languages such as Arabic that are needed at the CIA, FBI and elsewhere. Security clearances narrow the field even more.
"You don't have a limitless pool to draw from," Black said.
Agencies also hire away analysts from each other. "Sure, there is intense competition within the government," said Homeland Security spokeswoman Michelle Petrovich. "The pool that we are looking for is probably going to be fairly limited and in high demand."
Roberts concluded the shortage of experienced analysts was the intelligence community's most glaring deficiency during a series of "oh-my-God hearings" into the bombings of the USS Cole, U.S. embassies in Africa and other attacks.
Before the 1998 attack on the USS Cole in a Yemeni port, one intelligence analyst found information that led him to conclude such an attack was possible. But the warnings weren't heeded, Roberts said.
"He had put the pieces together," Roberts said.
Training incoming analysts is no easy task. Most specialties require analysts to invest seven to 10 years to get a true handle on their subject. Cultures and languages can require extensive immersion in a region, which can't be gained from sitting behind a desk in Washington.
Mike Scheuer, who headed the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999, said intelligence services need to find more experts in Islamic extremism to take the jobs, similar to the legions of analysts available during the Cold War to deal with the Soviets.