Federal employees are a tough bunch. They know that criticism and second-guessing are occupational hazards. But they also feel vulnerable when their agency is under siege.

In 1997, the Senate Finance Committee whacked the Internal Revenue Service for alleged mistreatment of taxpayers. The IRS was led by an acting commissioner, a career employee who worked hard to defend employees during his 51/2-month tenure as agency head. The hearings ended with employee morale in tatters, and the IRS launched a coast-to-coast reorganization, the results of which still reverberate through the agency.

Now, the Central Intelligence Agency may undergo historic change. The 9/11 commission report has laid out a series of failures in the intelligence community and called for an overhaul that could put one or two external management layers on top of the CIA and diminish its clout at the White House. Since July 11, the agency has been led by an acting director, an experienced professional with the best interests of the CIA at heart.

Mindful of what can happen to employee morale during times of uncertainty, President Bush yesterday moved to shore up the agency.

Bush, who is trying to navigate through the 9/11 panel's recommendations, announced the nomination of Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a former CIA agent, to lead the CIA.

Calling Goss a "reformer," Bush noted that "since September the 11th, our intelligence professionals have worked with great determination to stop another attack on America, and our country is grateful."

Goss, in thanking the president, said, "What many Americans don't realize is that we've got an awful lot of people around the globe doing very, very hard work -- long hours in dangerous situations. The essence of our intelligence capability is people. And we have some wonderful Americans doing a great job."

A White House official said employee morale at the CIA "has been a concern of the president's," in part because of the 9/11 commission hearings. The official noted that Bush's father once served as CIA director and that the president thinks rank-and-file CIA employees "need to know that they have the commander in chief's full backing."

Although morale at the CIA may be an issue, agency employees have a reputation for being "pretty focused" on doing their jobs and furthering agency priorities, said Michael G. Vickers, director of strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a former CIA operations officer.

Still, Vickers said, "The agency generally doesn't like to have acting directors for very long. . . . The CIA director has a number of formal and informal responsibilities, but agency employees look to the director to have some influence in the White House."

Robert M. Tobias, who led the National Treasury Employees Union at the time of the Senate hearings on the IRS, said, "It is really important that there be a Senate-confirmed person in place at an agency in transition."

Presidential appointees, Tobias said, typically have "the political support from the administration to institute the changes that are necessary in an agency in transition."

In remarks to the CIA staff July 16, the agency's acting director, John E. McLaughlin, said "the current waves of scrutiny and criticism are a new experience" for many employees but cannot be compared to debates of the mid-1970s and early 1990s, when some experts questioned whether the nation even needed an intelligence community.

"Today, no one doubts the absolute importance of what you do," McLaughlin said, adding that "the only question today is how can American intelligence be even better?"

Bob Rebelo, CIA chief of human resources, said yesterday that agency employees have not been distracted from their work. "You can move boxes around on a wiring diagram -- and that is all out there -- but the bottom line is that we are riveted to mission at all levels. . . . We are very busy, and we are very committed."

Diary Live Today

Please join me at noon today for an online discussion of federal employee and retiree issues on Federal Diary Live at www.washingtonpost.com.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com