Bigger-is-better approach not always intelligent

The bigger-is-better mentality is alive and well in Washington, in spite of ample evidence that quantity and quality don’t necessarily correspond, and sometimes even have an inverse relationship.

President Bush in an executive order last month required the Central Intelligence Agency to double the number of agents in its clandestine service, that small but critical part of “the company” responsible for the delicate and often dangerous work of running covert operations and collecting “human intelligence.” It’s in this arena that the agency has sometimes fallen short in recent times, and in this arena where improvements have been promised by new CIA Director Porter Goss. But bigger isn’t necessarily better in the spy trade.

The 100-percent increases Bush ordered “are huge,” one former agency employee told The Washington Post, and will require a new CIA training facility “and even more aggressive recruiting, or lowering the quality of people.”

Recruiting and training spies is a long and laborious process, requiring many years and great care. It’s just not the same as going out and hiring a bunch of photocopier salesmen.

It took decades to wreck the agency’s operations division; it will take as much time, if not more, to re-build it. And the hiring binge required to meet the president’s mandate (responding to a recommendation from the 9/11 Commission, it’s worth noting) could not only water down the CIA talent pool, but divert agents from the front lines in the war on terror (to serve as trainers), and invite easier penetration of the organization by foreign agents or potential turncoats.

An indiscriminate recruiting binge has been cited as one reason the Iraqi police and national guard have been infiltrated by insurgents. A similar effort a number of years ago by the Washington, D.C., Police Department resulted in a high number of corrupt and incompetent officers becoming part of the force.

A top-notch spy service simply can’t be reconstructed by the numbers, or by the book. Such a belief reflects the naivete of policymakers and the public. The president should have resisted the temptation to succumb to the same, old, bigger-is-better formula.