CIA recruiting news generation of spies at College Park

Women, ethnic minorities favored among applicants

November 12, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

LANGLEY, Va. -- WANTED: Smart, clean-living college and graduate students fluent in non-Romance languages. Minority group members and Turkish and Iranian U.S. citizens are especially welcome. A taste for foreign intrigue is required.

That's the Central Intelligence Agency's pitch for its biggest recruiting drive since the Cold War ended. And it's working even better than spymasters expected. Applications more than doubled to 39,000 in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. They're expected to double again next year, and the drive should continue up to four more years.

Although the number of new spies remains classified, the flood of job offers also doubled, overwhelming the CIA's background checkers, who fell so far behind that the agency failed to meet its 1998-1999 hiring target. Now that more checkers have been added, the agency plans to increase its job offers by another 30 percent for 1999-2000.

Rather than Ivy League males, women and ethnic minorities -- particularly Asian and Arab Americans -- are favored. George Tenet, director of central intelligence, also wants more recruits with advanced degrees, foreign language proficiency and experience living and working abroad.

These days, the University of Maryland, just inside the Washington Beltway, is the CIA's most productive recruiting ground.

"We had the CIA here a few weeks ago and their schedule was filled. They were turning away people," said Mark Kenyon, program director at the University of Maryland's career center.

One reason for the response, said Kenyon: "They are straightforward and honest in terms of the operative or spy position," he said. "The old CIA would have been tight-lipped."

With the expansion of the global economy, said Kenyon, students are drawn to careers that combine foreign affairs expertise, travel and patriotic service. Then there is the mystique of espionage.

"The danger intrigues me," said a 23-year-old woman, fluent in German, who expects to graduate from Maryland in May with a master's degree in international security studies.

The woman said she was aware of the CIA's controversial history. "They do a lot of good work that doesn't get the recognition it deserves," she added.

Of every 100 qualified applicants, about 50 get tentative job offers, Medeiros said. About 37 accept them. Of those, an average of 17 survive the CIA's background check, in-depth interviews and psychological testing.

Unclear, however, is whether the new recruits will restore the reputation of an intelligence agency rocked in the past decade by double-agent scandals, blown operations, shoddy intelligence and humiliating errors such as mistaking the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade for a Yugoslav government building, putting the mission on NATO's bombing list.

After years of budget cuts, personnel slashes and resignations, embarrassed by its failure to predict India's nuclear test or North Korea's missile launch and unable to crow about its successes, the agency has seen its morale and the confidence of policy-makers and the public plummet.

And the 21st century will make the 20th, in which the CIA focused almost obsessively on the Soviet Union, look easy.

Spy satellites were ideal for watching Soviet missile silos; they are less useful for hunting terrorists, sniffing out drug traffickers, exposing secret weapons programs or predicting the latest schemes of Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein.

After years of directors who favored satellites, electronic eavesdropping and other high-tech intelligence gathering over spies, Tenet, the intelligence community's third director in six years, is re-emphasizing personnel.

"We are building up and empowering our greatest assets of all: our people," Tenet declared in an Oct. 18 speech at Georgetown University in Washington.

Especially favored is the Directorate of Operations, the clandestine service that runs covert operations and recruits foreign agents.

Experts and former officers say the so-called DO, which employs about 2,000 people, is in special need of reform. Long a clubby domain of white men, it has proved ill-suited to penetrating modern extremist groups, "rogue" regimes, foreign crime gangs, non-Western cultures and "hard targets" such as North Korea and Iraq.

"Maybe in the agency's history, too many people did not know much about the world on the outside," said Gil Medeiros, the CIA's director of recruiting. "Today you have to have a certain set of [foreign language and culture] skills before we'll even talk to you."

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