As soon as U.S. counterintelligence officials finish their security fix at the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories, they should do the same at CIA stations overseas, where agency case officers often stand out like sore thumbs and are easily followed by foreign counterintelligence operatives.

So says Brian P. Fairchild, a former case officer in the CIA's Directorate of Operations (DO), who has been sounding the alarm for years about lax counterintelligence and operational security at the agency's embassy-based foreign posts.

It doesn't take foreign intelligence operatives long, Fairchild says, to figure out which "third secretaries" in the State Department's political section are actually CIA case officers.

And if it doesn't take them long to figure out who the CIA officers are, he says, it doesn't take them long to figure out which foreign officials the CIA is trying to recruit, making it easy to warn them, move them to new posts or turn them into double agents.

Fairchild, who retired in 1995 after numerous overseas postings, including a stint as a so-called non-official cover (NOC) officer, first warned Congress of this danger a year and a half ago. "In two large, important stations to which I was assigned, one in Asia and the other in Europe, the local counterintelligence service made it known to the station that it was aware, almost to a man, of the number of DO undercover officers in the embassy," Fairchild told Congress's Joint Economic Committee.

"Because the recruitment of sources is emphasized over the defensive aspects of the job, the DO's 'tradecraft,' that is, the development and use of techniques to avoid detection by enemy forces, is poorly developed."

Fairchild repeated his concerns last week after reading claims by the CIA's new deputy director for operations, James L. Pavitt, that the directorate is on the mend two years into an ambitious rebuilding campaign.

The DO's counterintelligence and operational security problems are so deep, Fairchild says, that they will take far longer than two years to fix. "I believe in the agency, I want the agency to succeed," says Fairchild, who now works as director of investigations for an international security management firm in Virginia. "But if you made a movie of the real aspects of the job, it would be a comedy, not a spy thriller."

COMPANY OF SPIES: A new DO leadership team has come together under Pavitt, 53, a former operations officer and National Security Council official, and his new deputy, Associate Deputy Director for Operations Hugh Turner, 56, a legendary DO operator who won the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart as a Green Beret in Vietnam.

Directly below Turner in the clandestine service's chain of command are Barry G. Royden, 61, associate deputy director in charge of counterintelligence, and John F. Nelson, 47, associate deputy director for resources, plans and policy.

Royden assumed the CIA's top counterintelligence post after serving as chief of the Latin America Division. Nelson filled a newly created associate deputy director's post after serving as CIA Director George J. Tenet's chief of staff, chief financial officer at the National Reconnaissance Office and a budget analyst on the staff of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Replacing Turner as director of the technology management group within the directorate is Stephen W. Richter, 57, former chief of the Near East Division.

While Pavitt, Turner, Nelson and Royden have all spent their careers mostly in the shadows, the preferred state for directorate officials, Richter last year earned the wrath of Richard Perle, an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration, who publicly demanded Richter's ouster for allegedly botching a series of covert actions aimed at toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"Stephen Richter has an unbroken record of failure," Perle said in a speech last October at the American Enterprise Institute. "The head of the Near East division at the CIA . . . should be removed on grounds of incompetence and a lack of the fundamental qualifications to hold that position."

A CIA official responded that, far from removing Richter, the agency awarded him its Distinguished Intelligence Medal just last week. In five years running the Near East Division, the official said, Richter sharpened "its focus on key issues, was a forceful advocate for more resources, and put unprecedented emphasis on language training."

Vernon Loeb's e-mail address is loebv@washpost.com