Recruiting spies: tricks of a murky trade
- US still lacks spies on the ground and native speakers to combat
Recruiting spies: tricks of a murky trade
September 02, 2004
By Alexandra Marks
The Christian Science Monitor
The CIA makes progress, but critics say it is hampered by Muslim
bitterness against the US and other challenges.
NEW YORK To understand one reason why the CIA and FBI may be having
trouble recruiting the kind of informants that would be the most
effective against Al Qaeda, just talk to "Mohammed."
A devout Muslim immigrant fluent in Arabic who's been in the country
for six years, he's got no use for Al Qaeda, or the US government.
Soon after 9/11 he was thrown in jail for two months - "detained" was
the word used by the Justice Department. He says he was shackled,
questioned, and intimidated before he was finally let go. Add to that
the war in Iraq, in which he believes innocent Muslims are being
killed, and he scoffs at the idea of helping the US government, no
matter how despicable he finds Osama bin Laden.
"Why should I want to help people like that, people who are killing
my Muslim brothers everyday?" asks the computer specialist, standing
in a coffee shop in Brooklyn. He asked that his real name not be used
for fear of retribution.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks exposed the inadequacy of American
intelligence's clandestine services - its lack of spies on the ground
and native speakers in countries that are terrorist hotbeds - the
agencies have made great strides. All analysts agree on that. The CIA
has been graduating the largest classes of spies and analysts ever,
and it turns away thousands of applicants a year, including many Arab
Americans eager to fight Al Qaeda and terrorism.
But there's also general consensus the Central Intelligence Agency
and its 14 brethren spy agencies still have great lengths still to go
build a truly effective spy network that can regularly infiltrate Al
Qaeda and its proliferating franchises around the world. Before
stepping down, George Tenet told Congress he believed it would take
another five years to fully rebuild the agency's clandestine
operations. Other analysts contend a more realistic assessment is 10
to 15 years.
Complications for recruitment
That work is complicated by several factors, including an evolving
understanding of the nature of the terrorist threat, and ethical
questions about what lengths Americans should go to protect the
country. Another big stumbling block, according to some critics: the
way the government has handled the Arab American and Muslim
communities in the wake of 9/11.
"It's difficult to recruit people to join organizations when they
feel besieged by them," says Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the
Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington. "The
detentions ... the foreign policies in the Muslim world, you name it.
Muslims are feeling besieged by it these days."
The CIA, which receives 2,000 applications on its website each week,
says those perceptions have not hampered its ability to
recruit. "We've had a very successful recruiting program that focused
on the Arab American communities in Detroit and Tampa," says CIA
spokesman Tim Crispell. "We've gotten terrific responses from those
communities, at least from people who've expressed interested in
working in the intelligence field."
A recent report by the Government Accountability Office found that
while the FBI has also made progress in retooling itself to meet
terror threats, the number of counterterrorism agents is "still not
sufficient to handle the workload."
Compounding the problem is competition among intelligence agencies
and private sector firms that all are vying for the same small pool
of experienced translators and intelligence analysts knowledgeable
about the Arab American and Muslim communities. So even as the FBI
has beefed up its human intelligence expertise, it's also lost
hundreds of experienced agents, in part, because it's easier to get
ahead professionally in the CIA and the National Security Agency.
But critics say those agencies are also finding it challenging to
enlist the kind of intelligence assets that would be most effective
against Islamic terrorism - the Mohammeds of the world who can move
easily between cultures here at home and on different sides of the
A primary part of the problem is that resentment generated by post
9/11 policies, according to Harvard University's Juliette Kayyem. But
she contends it's also because the intelligence agencies "aren't
trying hard enough" in reaching out to minority communities.
"The raw numbers are classified, but they have disclosed that
minority recruitment of covert operatives is well below the national
average of minorities in America and well below the employment of
minorities in the federal governments," says Ms. Kayyem. That's been
exacerbated by a backlog of background checks, which she says can
take as much as a year.
To what lengths should US go?
There's also the challenge of learning how to operate in the field,
which can take many years to master - and the question of how willing
America is to get its hands dirty in spying. "You don't just knock at
bin Laden's gate and say, 'Hey, we're here to join,'" says Frank
Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy and a former
security adviser to President Bush.
An undercover operative often won't be truly trusted by the enemy
until he has proven himself. "If a person is required to commit a
crime or a murder to get into one of these terrorist cells, is that a
price that's too high for this American democracy to bear if it means
the prevention of the death of tens of thousands of people, or even
four people?" asks Kevin O'Connell, an intelligence expert at the
In the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration changed the CIA
guidelines in dealing with Al Qaeda. While they are still classified,
one high level source says "the gloves are off."
Calls for balance
Still, Mr. O'Connell believes that it's crucial for the American
public to become more educated about intelligence issues so it can
discuss and debate them.
The nation has to work "to strike a balance between what we need to
do to accomplish the mission and what we're comfortable with as a
society," he says. Agents who've been on the ground agree, but they
also argue that the nation must be aware that it's dealing with an
enemy that does not hew to any constitution or the Geneva Conventions.
"We have to be careful that we don't bind ourselves to rules that our
enemy doesn't follow," says Ron Marks, a former CIA official. "Al
Qaeda's bottom line is the total destruction of the United States.
They're not pussyfooting around. They want us dead and gone."
But Mr. Cilluffo and other analysts note that Americans also don't
want to end up jeopardizing the very freedoms and civil liberties
that they're fighting to protect. "It's a delicate balance, and the
consequences of not doing it right are potentially catastrophic in
the world we live in today," O'Connell concludes.
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