Wednesday, March 02, 2005


By William Fisher

This has been a week when the U.S. press was barely able to keep up with new developments in the ‘war on terror’, bewilderment coupled with hubris about changes in the Middle East, one court proceeding denying bail to an American citizen held without charge in Saudi Arabia for nearly three years and a second telling the Department of Justice to either charge another citizen or let him go, a civil liberties lawsuit accusing the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, of being responsible for prisoner abuse, and the release of the State Department’s annual report on civil rights around the world.

So it is not surprising that the recruiting problems facing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sneaked by virtually under the radar.

Two former CIA case officers weighed in on the recruiting problem. Melissa Boyle Mahle, who spent five years as a CIA recruiter, talked about her new book, "Denial and Deception: An Insider's View of the CIA From Iran-Contra to 9/11".

As reported in The Washington Post, Ms. Mahle says “part of the trouble in the CIA's trenches arises from the agency's hermetically sealed office culture, where secrecy and security can become excuses for avoiding risk. She cites the agency's continuing struggles to recruit Arab Americans, Asian Americans and other second-generation immigrants with native speaking ability who might blend more successfully into Third World societies than someone who looks like her.”

As a CIA recruiter, Mahle says she “sent many well-qualified, diverse candidates on for security review, only to see large numbers wash out. While some were rejected for straightforward reasons, such as lying about past drug use, others were turned away because their "psychological profile" did not match the CIA's abstract ideal or because their family and social contacts overseas made their backgrounds hard to scrub.”

"Security has no incentive to take risks," Mahle said.

The result "was best illustrated by a panoramic view of the swearing-in of the first class to enter on duty . . . after September 11; it was a sea of white faces."

And the Council on Foreign Relations magazine, Foreign Policy, the premier publication of its kind, carried an article by Robert Baer, cautioning that “The CIA must cultivate foreign sources, reward service overseas, and tap America’s top students to once again get good information on enemies of the United States.”

Baer, who was a CIA case officer from 1976 to 1997, had some advice for CIA chief Porter Goss -- “recruit on college campuses.” Baer noted an earlier time when the CIA “recruited actively and effectively on college campuses. If a student excelled in an obscure language such as Uzbek and expressed a desire to serve his country, a friendly professor might direct him or her toward Langley. It was a vetting system that helped the CIA attract the best and the brightest. The Vietnam War helped put an end to this system and left in its wake a hostile professoriate. Today, the agency relies too heavily on volunteers who come knocking on the door. Having a booth at college job fairs is no substitute for guidance from university professors and administrators.

“Reviving even an informal feeder system would surely meet resistance. But if
you’re able to reconnect with the country’s top universities and their students,
the rewards will be great down the line. Today, the directorate needs six years
to vet new employees: a year of working at headquarters, a year of training, a
year of language study, and a three-year journeyman tour overseas. For those who prove inadequate along the way, the only recourse is to shunt them off to jobs where they can’t do any harm. Imagine how much better the system would work if the CIA identified the prime talent at the front end,” he said.

He suggested changing the security clearance system. “If you are, say, an American born in Islamabad who happens to have a second cousin working in the Pakistani intelligence service, the chances of getting security clearance to join the agency are close to nil. Third-generation Americans with no known foreign relatives but who have spent much of their lives overseas have a better chance, but the odds are still slim, especially if those overseas years were spent
studying in a place like Cairo.”

Of course, he wrote, “there is always a risk that someone who has studied in Cairo—and picked up an Egyptian girlfriend or boyfriend, and a lot of other Egyptian friends—will have gone over to the dark side. But the CIA and the DO desperately need people who speak foreign languages and who know parts of the world crucial to the United States. To reject such people solely because they aren’t provincial is yet another way the agency cuts off its nose to spite its face.”

“Why give such people any clearance?” he asks. “Because we get a window on the world. Let’s say the CIA hires a young U.S. citizen educated at the American University of Beirut who marries a Saudi girl, and who maybe even converts to Islam and moves to Saudi Arabia to take a job. After five or six years living in the kingdom, he’s sure to speak fluent Arabic and move in circles regular CIA employees can’t even glimpse. He might even get close enough to the fundamentalists to recruit one as a source. This reform would radically alter protocols that have been in place since the CIA was founded in 1947. It will be tough to force through the system, but it is crucial if the CIA hopes to adapt.”

But one of the CIA’s juiciest recruiting targets is proving to be elusive. The Arab-American and Muslim-American communities are, by and large, terrified by even the idea of talking with any U.S. law enforcement or intelligence agencies. While some have come forward – and many of those have been unable to get security clearances – the Islamophobia that has gripped America since 9/11 has created widespread suspicion and fear in these communities.

Leaders of organizations representing Arab- and Muslim-Americans insisted on speaking with this column on condition of anonymity. But their message was unified and clear: “When the FBI or the CIA or the Department of Homeland Security come knocking at your door, you’re more likely to be rounded up and put in jail than offered a job.”