A James Bond Wanna-Be?

The handshake is vicelike, the stare hard. He owns a Walther PPK pistol--the 1960s James Bond's handgun of choice--and practices martial arts. He smokes pre-Castro Cuban cigars and once, while scuba diving with some macho buddies, he says he punched a great white shark in the jaw, just to show that he could. A. B. (Buzzy) Krongard, the new executive director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is by all appearances a throwback to an earlier age, when spymasters were often Ivy Leaguers with a sense of elan and a streak of boldness--sometimes too much of it.

Few policymakers would want to bring back the CIA's "good old days"--the failed assassination plots, the botched coups, the drug experiments--of the early cold war. But there is a widely shared feeling on Capitol Hill and in the intelligence community that years of scandals have made the CIA overly cautious. "Risk aversion has taken hold," says Rep. Porter Goss, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Though the Soviet Union is no longer the CIA's "hard target," terrorism is in some ways even harder to crack. The CIA, some believe, needs more and better spies who can penetrate terrorist cells and the secretive regimes of "rogue states" like Iraq and Libya. With at least the tacit approval of the Bush administration, Krongard plans to shake up the bureaucracy--focus manpower on the "mission" of smart spying and covert action, and not on paper shuffling. Old agency hands view Krongard as a kind of test: "Will the place respond to a firm hand," asks one former high-ranking CIA official, "or drift into the half-life of a Washington bureaucracy that no one pays attention to but you can't kill?"

The insular CIA appears to be placing hope for a revival on this outsider, albeit one with a profound interest in the clandestine world. A wealthy and successful investment banker, Krongard did not join the CIA--at least publicly--until 1998, when, at 61, he came aboard as a kind of free-floating counselor to the director, George Tenet. In March, Tenet gave Krongard the "ex dir" job, officially No. 3 at the agency, but, more important, allowed him to "reorganize" the agency's notoriously independent fiefdoms so that they all report to Krongard. The former Princeton All-America lacrosse player is blunt and contemptuous of bureaucratic evasion and jargon. (He has recently insisted on calling the agency's "assets"--foreign nationals on the CIA payroll--by their proper name: "spies.")

Some current officials in the agency's directorate of operations are skeptical of Krongard. "He's a wanna-be," says one. "He talks tough but he's never been there." In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Krongard icily replied: "A wanna-be? Maybe I am. Maybe I'm not. That's as much as you're going to get." At Alex Brown, Krongard's Baltimore-based investment house, his partners joked about their boss's "dark world." "We can't get into that," says Krongard. The implication is that he's been working undercover for the CIA for years. Krongard points out that the derring-do World War II precursor to the CIA, the OSS, was nicknamed "Oh So Social" because it was manned heavily by Ivy League Wall Streeters. Spying has much in common with investment banking, says Krongard: "Will India invade Pakistan? Will IBM have a good year?" At his investment firm, Krongard says, he sometimes told his troops to dress casually--"put on a sweater"--and hang out in bars patronized by industry executives, the better to catch unguarded comments.

There is some concern on Capitol Hill that Krongard, if not kept in line, will push for operations that could backfire. "He's all gung-ho, 'Let's go get 'em, boys'," says a Senate staffer with oversight responsibility. But other agency watchers are counting on Tenet, who once worked on the Senate Intelligence Committee, to be careful. "George knows you can get in trouble if you move too fast. He'll dot the i's," says a former agency official. "Buzzy is perfect," Tenet told NEWSWEEK. "He's my right hand."

Much depends on the White House. The CIA got into trouble in the past when presidents, frustrated by diplomats or the military, turned to spies to do the impossible. President Bill Clinton was wary of the agency. He declined to be regularly briefed by his first director, James Woolsey, and instructed Woolsey to keep the CIA out of the headlines. President George W. Bush has restored the CIA's daily intelligence briefing. Krongard enthuses about Bush: the president, he says, "is an 11 on a scale of zero to 10." But White House officials are reserving judgment about Krongard. Bush, whose father ran the CIA after its worst scandals in the 1970s, probably knows the most basic rule for presidents who believe in covert action as a tool of statecraft: deniability.