People problem undermines security

August 11, 2005|By Haim Zaltzman

AS I STOOD on the Uzbek side of that country's border with Afghanistan during my travels through central Asia, I remember asking our driver: "I wonder how many CIA agents are over there?" He chuckled: "None. Americans are bad spies; they don't fit in." This was late August 2001. Events two short weeks later underscored this reality.

The bipartisan 9/11 commission agreed, stressing that the lack of qualified individuals constitutes the clearest problem for all federal agencies employed to deal with America's security. The United States must upgrade the human component of its national security infrastructure.

Some solutions have been offered. Recent articles argue for more scholarships for students to learn strategic languages or incentives to attract professors to teach Arabic and Middle East studies. While these proposals have merit, they represent piecemeal or ad hoc efforts. We have no plan to develop the next generation of properly qualified individuals to fill the many agencies involved in national security.

America's national security demands smarter investment. To that effect, the federal government should establish the Government Officers' Training Corps (GOTC), a program similar to the military's Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC).

Like ROTC, GOTC would give full-ride scholarships to qualifying college students. The federal government, in return, would tailor these undergraduates' skills - instruct students in relevant topics, train them over summers and require students to take courses pertinent to the government's needs. GOTC could even channel students into academic fields that specifically match agency needs.

Any federal agency involved in national security, including the National Security Agency, CIA, State Department, FBI and Defense Intelligence Agency, would take part. At the end of an undergraduate career, the student would be required to serve at least four years at a government agency designated by GOTC. Although they could express preferences, students would not know their assignments beforehand. Students who choose not to serve would refund the scholarship, possibly through a government-subsidized loan.

Launching and running GOTC would require time and resources. Also, GOTC might concern covert agencies that do not want the identity of their recruits known. That students do not know their future placement, however, minimizes this risk. Overall, the benefits far outweigh these possible costs.

Federal agencies would benefit immensely from developing a pipeline for high-caliber personnel. GOTC would develop a relationship with students early in their academic careers. Early and more frequent contact translates into deeper bonds and breeds loyalty.

GOTC also would drastically improve the quality of recruits and their use. The program would shape a student's capabilities over four years so that, upon his or her graduation, the government would understand the student's preferences and know exactly where the student will be best used.

Better placement would translate into lower turnover, which accordingly would save taxpayer money over the long term. Top-notch students who are not attracted to military service or who could not otherwise entertain a government job for financial reasons would be attracted to this prestigious program. GOTC would be an investment with a guaranteed return rather than the inefficient hunt for talent currently undertaken by many federal recruiters.

There is no silver bullet for fortifying U.S. defenses. People employed in federal agencies are America's new soldiers in the war on terror; we must accordingly improve these agencies' ability to consistently recruit qualified individuals. GOTC would be a smart investment in America's key national security weakness: the lack of highly skilled people.

Haim Zaltzman, a Fulbright scholar, recently graduated from Harvard Law School.

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