WASHINGTON — Confronting problems on critical fronts, the CIA recently removed its top officer in Baghdad because of questions about his ability to lead the massive station there, and has closed a number of satellite bases in Afghanistan amid concerns about that country's deteriorating security situation, according to U.S. intelligence sources.
The previously undisclosed moves underscore the problems affecting the agency's clandestine service at a time when it is confronting insurgencies and the U.S.-declared war on terrorism, current and former CIA officers say. They said a series of stumbles and operational constraints have hampered the agency's ability to penetrate the insurgency in Iraq, find Osama bin Laden and gain traction against terrorism in the Middle East.
The CIA's Baghdad station has become the largest in agency history, eclipsing the size of its post in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War, a U.S. official said. But sources said the agency has struggled to fill a number of key overseas posts.
Many of those who do take sensitive overseas assignments are willing to serve only 30- to 90-day rotations, a revolving-door approach that has undercut the agency's ability to cultivate ties to warlords in Afghanistan or collect intelligence on the Iraqi insurgency, sources said.
There is such a shortage of Arabic speakers and qualified case officers willing to take dangerous assignments that the agency has been forced to hire dozens -- if not hundreds -- of CIA retirees, and to lean heavily on translators, sources said. The agency has also had to use soldiers for tasks that CIA officers normally perform, sources said.
Even without the personnel challenges, Iraq and Afghanistan are seen as so dangerous that it is difficult for agency officers to venture outside guarded districts and compounds without security details, making covert meetings with informants extremely difficult, sources said.
CIA officials said Thursday that the agency had no shortage of eager volunteers for tough assignments, or any lack of resolve in the war on terrorism.
But current and former officers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the agency was confronting one of the most difficult challenges in its history.
One former officer who maintains close ties to the agency said it was stretched to the limit. "With Afghanistan, the war on terrorism, with Iraq, I think they're just sucking wind," he said.
But the officers also said the latest problems point to a deeper problem with the CIA leadership and culture. Some lamented that an agency once vaunted for its daring and reach now finds itself overstretched and hunkered down in secure zones.
"They claim that they've rebuilt the [clandestine service] and it's firing on all cylinders," said a former station chief in the Middle East. "Is it? I would say not. Not if you don't have trained manpower."
The CIA dismisses such criticism, and President Bush has recently voiced support for six-year CIA Director George J. Tenet. The president said he believed the agency was serving the country well. The CIA has also won praise for its role in dismantling the upper ranks of Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and helping round up the top figures in Saddam Hussein's regime.
But in many respects, the CIA is an agency under siege, with several inquiries underway into its prewar assessments on Iraq, and an independent commission still investigating intelligence failures related to the Sept. 11 attacks.
The U.S. official acknowledged that the CIA station chief in Baghdad was removed in December after weeks of increasingly deadly and sophisticated attacks against U.S.-led coalition forces and civilian targets.
"There was just a belief that it was a huge operation and we needed a very senior, very experienced person to run it," the official said.
The official declined to disclose the number of CIA personnel in Iraq, but other sources said it exceeded 500 people.
The replacement of the station chief means that the high-profile post has been held by three senior officers since Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq in May, sources said. The job of Baghdad station chief is a demanding one that includes briefing top U.S. officials in Iraq, providing frequent updates to Washington on the stability of the country, and overseeing all of the operations and analysis done in the nation.
The first of the three recent station chiefs had served at the Baghdad station before the Persian Gulf War in 1991. He went to "run operations [from] across the border" before the invasion last year, was fluent in Arabic and was "extraordinarily experienced" in setting up and running large intelligence operations, according to a former senior intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But that officer had always planned to leave the job in June 2003, and has since moved on to another station in the Middle East, sources said.