ADVICE+DISSENT: Intelligence File Pulling Them In

How can the next president keep the intelligence community vital?

By the time you're reading this, we'll all know-or soon will know-who is the 44th president of the United States. And barring any unforeseen catastrophes, on Jan. 20, 2009, power will transition to the next administration.

The new president must put this item high on his agenda: How to keep tens of thousands of new intelligence community employees in their jobs and how to hire more. It is estimated that more than half the current workforce came into government after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And there is real concern that they'll leave soon, lured away by higher private sector salaries or professional wanderlust. As the older generation of intelligence employees retires, they'll be leaving the greener members to fill their ranks. What can a President McCain or a President Obama do to ensure the community workforce thrives?

By imagining life at the end of their presidency, here's a look at how McCain and Obama might tackle the intelligence workforce challenge and the obstacles they might face.

It's November 2012. John McCain has chosen not to seek a second term, and the electorate is split over the historic decision of which two women candidates to send to the White House-Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin.

As with military recruitment, McCain correctly predicted early in his first term that maintaining and growing the intelligence roster would cost "real money." After a top-to-bottom review of federal personnel procedures, he secured special hiring and retention bonuses for top performers at the intelligence agencies. He also frequently deferred to managers on deciding who should receive those incentives. Many employees charged favoritism and said their good work was overlooked. Some of McCain's critics blamed his incentive policy for the dramatic exodus of younger employees (those with fewer than 10 years' experience) in 2010. But it wasn't entirely clear that they hadn't left for positions of greater responsibility with contractors, which by then provided more than half the community's workforce. The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks also was approaching, and some employees just felt it was time for a change. Fortunately, the agencies were able to attract new hands to fill their ranks through an aggressive campaign of online recruitment, which, most notably, embedded advertisements in video games popular among 18- to 24-year-old men.

OR . . .

It's November 2012. Barack Obama, confident he'll win a second term, is pleased to have made AARP The Magazine's Sexiest Men Over 50 list.

The intelligence community's recruitment efforts were bolstered by the surge of young people who joined the civil service after Obama's election. In his inaugural address, Obama specifically appealed to those with skills in foreign language, technology and economics to help transform U.S. national security. Later, he tempted them with hiring bonuses and new fast-tracking programs that more quickly promoted top performers.

Obama ran into trouble with his "Intelligence for the 21st Century" plan, which critics said favored hiring analysts and policy wonks over clandestine operatives. Obama pointed out that advances in surveillance technology and unmanned aerial vehicles had kept terrorists on the run, but that analysts were leaving in frighteningly high numbers. The intelligence community managed to keep its recruitment numbers high through targeted advertisements aimed at business school graduates. They also tapped into a huge pool of unemployed but highly skilled financial analysts, who found themselves in need of steady work after the 2009 implosion in the over-the-counter derivatives market.

Seem far-fetched? Right on the money? Somewhere in between? We'll all find out soon enough.

Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.

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