U.S. spy agencies widen recruiting

Native speakers now given scholarships, easier path through security screenings

April 05, 2007|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- Kevin Saman is one who got away.

A second-generation Egyptian-American, he grew up speaking Arabic at home, graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles with a political science degree and then spent five months in Egypt in an elite federal scholarship program to encourage careers in national security.

A professor with strong CIA contacts urged Saman to consider a job there. But when he sought advice, through the professor, about applying, five CIA officers said: He'll never make it through security; don't even bother.

So Saman, 24, went to law school at George Washington University instead.

"He's super smart," said Amy Zegart, his former professor at UCLA. "He's exactly the kind of guy you'd want."

The director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, will soon unveil his "100-day plan" for intelligence reform. As part of it, he is expected to roll out new measures to increase hiring of first- and second-generation Americans with language and cultural fluency in critical areas, such as the Middle East, intelligence officials said.

Before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the lack of intelligence officers with such expertise was "one of the most serious issues" limiting agencies' ability to analyze terrorist threats, according to a 2002 congressional report on U.S. intelligence failures. Presidential commissions issued similar warnings in 2004 and 2005.

Since Sept. 11, there has been progress, but "it's uneven" said David Shedd, McConnell's chief of staff.

The hiring proposal is still being worked on, but it will incorporate lessons from early successes in new recruiting initiatives at the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency, officials said.

"The diversity of our country, particularly with first- and second-generation Americans, is a strategic advantage for us," said Ron Sanders, the director's chief of work force planning.

Infusing intelligence ranks with native speakers of sought-after languages, officials said, is a twofold challenge: encouraging them to apply, and getting them through the arduous security screening.

Saman's case shows the relationship between the two.

His parents immigrated to Orange County, Calif., in the 1970s, and his mother's family resides in the United States. But his father's family lives in Egypt, and Zegart was told that that would disqualify Saman.

Saman sees those ties as an asset, however, noting that he has had a front-row seat on the effects of colonization in the Middle East.

"When you have family there ... when you've seen the results, and you've lived there and understand what they have been through, it gives you perspective," he said.

CIA Associate Deputy Director Michael Morell agreed, and said that Saman was steered wrong.

"We don't want the view out there that we won't hire Egyptian-Americans or any other kind of Americans," he said in a recent interview in his office at CIA headquarters. "I wish [Zegart] would have called me. Maybe we need to do some internal education."

The CIA has doubled its funding for recruitment, expanded outreach efforts and doubled the number of recruits in critical languages in the past three years. They are a small but growing proportion of CIA classes. In 2004, they represented 5 percent of the incoming class, 6 percent in 2005, and 8 percent in 2006.

One of the new recruits is an Iranian-American intelligence analyst. She would not allow her name to be used for security reasons but said she immigrated with her parents after the Iranian revolution in 1979, and grew up in the Washington area taking Farsi classes and watching Persian movies. She has family in Iran, but has not been back.

The security screening was a concern.

"I went into it thinking the worst: that it was going to be really intrusive, that they were going to go after everything and everyone and wherever I've been, that they were really going to try to disqualify me," she said. "It wasn't that at all."

The recruit, who started last year after a year and a half application process, said it took some effort to persuade her parents that applying to the CIA was a smart career move, because Iranian children are encouraged to become doctors or engineers.

"It's been a little bit of a struggle for my parents," she said.

She one of several such recruits, Morell said, who include Arab-Americans who have dual citizenship or whose parents have dual citizenship, and an Afghan-American born in Afghanistan with immediate family still living there.

Merging recruitment and screening efforts is a key change that has enabled some of these less traditional recruits to get hired, and the NSA and the CIA have been at the forefront, Shedd said.

John Taflan, the NSA's work force chief, said recruitment officers now make their priorities clear to security colleagues and get applicants with special language skills cleared faster.

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