The departing top spy of the Central Intelligence Agency says it will take until 2005 for the agency to complete the task of rebuilding its clandestine service after years of thin budgets, rapid management turnover and low morale.

Jack G. Downing, a legendary spy who is retiring this week after 30 years at the CIA, said in a rare interview that the agency is now in the midst of "the largest drive to recruit new case officers in its history," thanks to "fresh resources" provided by Congress. But because recruits have to go through training and language schools, he said, "over the next few years there still will be a paucity of trained personnel overseas."

Downing, 60, was brought back from retirement in 1997 to resuscitate the Directorate of Operations, the branch of the CIA that runs spies abroad.

Gray-haired and low-key, he used an interview on the eve of his "permanent" retirement to speak enthusiastically about the agency's future and guardedly about his past as station chief in Moscow and Beijing.

"The best period" for U.S.-Chinese intelligence cooperation, he recalled, ran "from normalization of relations in 1978 through June 1989 and the events at Tiananmen Square." Although he declined to discuss details, that was a period in which China and the United States secretly built eavesdropping facilities along the Chinese-Soviet border and the CIA funneled Chinese weapons to rebels in Afghanistan.

Yet even at the height of cooperation, Downing said, both sides spied on each other. "That was expected," he said, adding, "it still is today," when allegations of Chinese nuclear espionage are roiling relations.

"They are not doing anything we do not expect them to do," he said.

Downing also was in Moscow from 1986 to 1989, when several Russians spying for the United States were executed because, it later turned out, their names had been given to the KGB by then-CIA officer Aldrich H. Ames. "We knew something had begun to happen," Downing said.

When he agreed to entreaties from Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet to come back to head the Directorate of Operations, Downing said, it was in bad shape. The Ames scandal and sex discrimination lawsuits had hurt morale and prompted "some of the best and brightest of the younger people" to leave the directorate.

Tenet was the fourth CIA director in five years, and the press was digging into the agency's Cold War activities.

"There was a lot of resentment. We were being victimized for our role in the past," Downing said. As a result, he added, "There was a reluctance to take risks."

With the Cold War over, new CIA centers for counterterrorism, counternarcotics, counterproliferation and counterintelligence were drawing personnel, while "the line divisions [covering geographic areas] were being starved," he said.

Another drain came from "force protection"--gathering intelligence against threats to U.S. troops overseas, which began in earnest during the Persian Gulf War and became a major CIA function under President Clinton.

In his first message to field officers after taking over, Downing said that "trying to do more with less only means we will do nothing." He found an ally in House Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), a former CIA officer who shepherded two budgets that boosted funding for operations. Exact figures are classified.

Some new stations have been opened though "still not . . . the number we need," Downing said. But he spoke with pride about his revival of a "ready reserve" of retirees who, he said, recently have been helpful in Africa and the Balkans.

He also took obvious pleasure in having reintroduced parachute training for all operations officers. "The idea is to challenge what is normal," he said.

Downing will be succeeded by his deputy, James L. Pavitt, a career CIA officer who served as intelligence director on the National Security Council staff during the Bush administration. Pavitt, in turn, has selected Hugh Turner, an Arabic-speaking case officer, as his new deputy.

The son of a Navy officer, Downing graduated in 1962 from Harvard, where he studied Chinese, and served two tours as a Marine in Vietnam. Discharged from the Marines on a Friday in 1967, he was sworn in as a CIA officer the following Monday.

He learned Russian on top of his Chinese and served multiple tours in Moscow and Beijing. In between, his posts included head of the East Asia division and special assistant to retired Adm. Stansfield Turner when he was CIA director.