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Sunday, August 27, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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At CIA school, data outweigh derring-do

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON - It is a five-story structure of polished brick and smoked glass, identical to its neighbors and similar to hundreds of sleek buildings in scores of new office parks in the high-tech corridor of suburban Virginia.

But on the second floor of this building, the CIA's newest spy school is in session.

The students wear laminated blue neck tags showing that they have security clearance to use classroom computers marked "Top Secret." Their trash is shredded and burned each day. And the study area has so many guards, locks and alarms that it is called "the vault."

The building is sheathed with special materials and sensors to stop anyone from secretly listening in. That's just as well, since a recent morning's visit found two instructors and 25 students deep in discussion of past coups, assassinations and invasions. Flunking out "is not an option," one teacher warns.

Welcome to the Sherman Kent School for Intelligence Analysis. Open since mid-May, it is the first comprehensive training program for the unheralded CIA analysts who sift stolen secrets, pore over satellite photos, review wiretap transcripts, scan State Department studies and wade through media reports.

Re-evaluating agency's role

The new school is the latest effort by the CIA to change the way it works. Buffeted by budget cuts, frustrated by new technology and mortified by scandals and failures, America's premier spook shop has spent two years re-evaluating its role - critics would say its rationale - and recharting its course in the post-Cold War world.

The goal, CIA chief George J. Tenet said recently, "is to make sense of a world that is more complicated and less predictable than it ever has been in our history." With the Cold War over, Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., head of the House Intelligence Committee, warns of "pop-up targets that threaten our national security."

Analysts at the CIA often play the most crucial role in influencing U.S. policy. That's because they write the world's most expensive and exclusive newspaper: the President's Daily Brief.

Drawing on the entire U.S. intelligence community - an estimated $30-billion-a-year enterprise - the top-secret file tries to tell the president and about a dozen of his top advisers what really is going on each day in the inner circles of power from Beijing to Bosnia - and what it means for U.S. interests and forces around the globe.

President Bush, a former CIA chief, insisted on starting his day with the PDB. President Nixon famously ignored his, once deriding "those clowns" at the CIA for failing to foresee the outbreak of the 1973 Middle East war.

But the lessons of that failure and other high-profile CIA mistakes, from the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba to the 1978 fall of the Shah of Iran, form the core of the Kent school curriculum.

"We spend a lot of time in this course studying mistakes," said Frans Bax, the Kent School dean and a 20-year CIA veteran.

Caught off-guard

There are plenty to study. The CIA was caught off-guard when India tested a series of underground nuclear devices in May 1998, even though the new government in New Delhi had been elected on a vow to develop nuclear weapons. Three months later, the agency was stunned again when North Korea launched a sophisticated three-stage rocket over Japan in a failed attempt to put a satellite into orbit.

And last year, in one of its worst foul-ups, the CIA provided incorrect targeting data that led U.S. warplanes to bomb the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the NATO air war against Yugoslavia. The CIA had not noticed the embassy's new address in the Belgrade telephone book.

Those failures added to the push for better collection, technology and analysis.

In the past, for example, CIA analysts were hired, given two to four weeks of training and assigned a desk at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Now, hundreds of new analysts are being recruited.

The curriculum includes everything from ethics to "Fundamentals of Denial and Deception." Field trips are planned to the super-secret National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Md., and the Pentagon's Pacific command and Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

The final week will include a nonstop 28-hour exercise, starting at 2 a.m., involving a mock terrorist attack. "This is deliberately designed to be intensive and stressful," Denis Stadther, director of the school's career analyst program, said cheerfully.

Martin Petersen, head of strategic programs in the CIA's directorate of intelligence, said the course is designed to build expertise and a loyalty to the CIA among the Gen-Xers who could easily find work in the outside world.

"What they do here is get a short, intense slice of what they'll face for the rest of their careers," Petersen said. "It's not about answers. It's about a mission. And heavy responsibilities. There are lives at stake in what they do."

Not surprisingly, the veteran analysts who run the school argue that stolen blueprints and bugged hotel rooms are swell, but that swift and insightful analysis of the growing torrent of information pouring into the CIA is the key to telling the president the real intentions of America's adversaries.

"Electronic intercepts are great, but you don't know if you've got two idiots talking on the phone," Petersen said. "And a picture may say 1,000 words but it's still just a snapshot. There is no context."

Providing context was critical to the late Sherman Kent, a revered CIA analyst and tobacco-chewing Yale history professor who first proposed creating the analysts' school in 1953.

The first class of 11 women and 14 men is an impressive group. Two-thirds have master's, doctorates or law degrees. Half have lived or worked abroad and are fluent in another language. A half-dozen served in the military.

And at least one, James, 34, has worked 10 years abroad as a CIA case officer - in other words, an agent who sweet-talks generals, file clerks and other foreigners into betraying their country.

Denise, the youngest student at 22, said she already has learned the key difference between writing for the CIA and her professors back at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Here you state the conclusions first," she said. "And you have to be concise."

Another student, Kim, 31, is less enthusiastic. "I think they don't know what to do with a Ph.D. in agricultural economics," she said. But later she admitted that her attitude may explain why she is there. "Skepticism is a characteristic that's encouraged here. So is being judgmental."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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