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Former Spies Speak Out on US Intelligence Reform

Larry Kolb was born into a house of spies. His family moved constantly during the height of the Cold War, as his father ran counter-intelligence operations all over Asia, Europe and the Middle East. But Mr. Kolb chose business as a career, eventually becoming the manager for several professional athletes, including boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

After that successful career, Mr. Kolb joined the 'family business,' and was soon involved in covert operations in the Middle East, central Asia and Latin America. He retired from the CIA a few years ago, and wrote a book about his experiences.

Larry Kolb tells his readers, though it might seem exciting to go to bed every night in a different place with a different identity, it's stressful and dangerous work. "Because the penalty for espionage almost all over the world, for centuries, now, has been death. So it keeps you interested and on your toes. But beyond that, it's psychologically very difficult to befriending another person- and it works when you genuinely befriend them- then, betray them. That's what we're forced to do and that's not easy," he says.

Mr. Kolb says he and his colleagues provided U.S. policy makers with an important weapon during the cold war era. America's intelligence services face different challenges today, he says, the war against terrorism. "The CIA was built to fight the Soviet Union and worldwide communism and it's still structured the way it has been since early on, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I think we need a new agency that is set up to tackle the Muslim insurgents who are the biggest threat to us today. I don't think America's intelligence services have many assets on the ground that really speak the language so well that they can operate undetected in the target areas that we're interested in," he says.

Mr. Kolb says operating successfully in the 'target area' takes more than language skills… it requires a broader understanding of the culture. I think as long as we believe that the reason Muslims hate us is because of our freedom and our democracy etc, we're going about it the wrong way. They think they have a point of view that should be heard as well. I think our approach is wrong from the perspective that we have on the Middle East. We need to go about dealing with Muslim world with more sensitivity. How they think vs. how we think. We're not going to make all of the Gulf states democratic in a year or two," he says.

Former CIA agent Peter Earnest - now director of The Spy Museum in Washington DC - points to another challenge in this new war: getting access to terrorist cells. "Terrorists are often very small cells, often made up simply of family members. It's very hard to penetrate such groups. A cell made up of two brothers and a cousin, how can you penetrate that cell? That's the difficulty. Whereas during the cold war in many cases we knew who the other side's spies or intelligence officers were, and we could gain access to them. That's a big, big difference between the cold war and today," he says.

One thing that hasn't changed, according to Mr. Earnest, is funding, there's never enough. I do know for many years that intelligence community didn't have the resources it needed for a long time. After the end of the cold war, a number of people said, 'well, we don't need intelligence anymore. Let's just wind down, we don't need to put resources into it.' And now, all of a sudden everybody says how come we don't have more spies. Well, it's late in the game. As you know [former head of the CIA] George Tenet testified before the 9/11 committee that he thought it would take a good five years to develop a new cadre of intelligence officers to conduct the kind of espionage we need," he says.

Last week, after the election, President Bush called on Congress to pass an effective intelligence reform bill he can sign into law. The House and Senate have each approved legislation that would create a new national counter-terrorism center and a new national intelligence director who would coordinate most of the nation's non-military spy agencies. But the two sides have not been able to agree on how much authority to give the Intelligence Director. Negotiators will try to reconcile the two bills when Congress returns for a lame duck session later this month.