Spy on mission to rebuild trust on home front

August 18, 2008|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,SUN REPORTER

The best-received jokes at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's annual conference this summer dealt, only partly in jest, with impeaching President Bush.

The speakers, who included liberal Democratic Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, railed against controversial aspects of the administration's anti-terrorism campaign: racial profiling, warrantless wiretaps, harsh interrogation techniques, Abu Ghraib, the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and even separate search lines at airports.

Sitting at a front table, listening carefully, was Ron Sanders, perhaps one of the gathering's unlikeliest guests. An Egyptian-American with deep Baltimore roots, Sanders is the architect of what might prove to be one of the most transformative - and unsung - changes taking place in the sprawling U.S. intelligence bureaucracy.

His visit was part of an expanding effort to win back the trust of thousands of the children and grandchildren of immigrants, or "heritage Americans." And then, to hire them.

Many from those communities "take great exception to U.S. policy," said Sanders, referring to concerns he heard at the June conference. "We have to overcome that," he added, noting the growing need for people who can help the federal government understand and prepare for stateless threats or destabilizing emergencies around the world.

"They can give us insights into their countries and cultures and the way people speak and think in their languages that can prevent the United States from making tactical or strategic mistakes. It's hugely important," he said.

It's also hugely challenging. Many of these newer Americans have been angered by U.S. counterterrorism activities. Some come from countries where intelligence is another word for repression.

The descendants of recent immigrants were of extraordinary importance to intelligence gathering in World War II and the early years of the Cold War, but the door has all but closed in recent decades because of rules that make it extremely difficult for children of foreigners to get top-secret security clearances. Those who do often feel alienated by the lack of diversity inside the government and leave after a short time, current and former officials said.

But Sanders believes that's about to change. Operating with a mandate from his boss, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, who has made multicultural recruitment a top priority, Sanders plans to communicate frequently with leaders of various ethnic enclaves across the country, according to a draft "Heritage American Recruitment and Retention Strategy" obtained by The Sun.

The document outlines other efforts as well: creating committees with ethnic advocates, attending conferences, visiting mosques, initiating a "national campaign" to promote diversity with marketing and messages tested by focus groups, and recruiting at colleges like Wayne State University in Michigan or California State University-San Bernardino, known to have high populations of Arab-Americans and Chinese-Americans, respectively. Sanders also plans to help applicants manage the security clearance process and improve retention by getting mentors to coach new hires.

Some ethnic civil rights advocates say this effort is long overdue, since the Department of Homeland Security and FBI have already initiated similar, well-received programs. Even so, some remain skeptical.

"There will continue to be people who are extremely apprehensive, since we know for a fact that the reputation of our country abroad has unfortunately been tarnished in recent years," said Kareem Shora, national executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, who applauded Sanders' efforts. "But if people like him have their eye on the ball and can do a better job engaging with our community, I think there is a lot we can achieve together."

Sanders' personal heritage hasn't hurt either, Shora said.

A low-key presence who speaks with unusual frankness for a senior intelligence official about the need for reform, Sanders is the son of a Baltimore father and an Egyptian-born mother.

Sanders' father worked for the Glenn L. Martin Co. in Middle River, making airplanes for the French before the United States entered World War II. Waylaid in Egypt while waiting to deliver some aircraft, he caught malaria and was nursed to health by the mother of his future bride.

Sanders said his own mother had developed a love of the United States from watching movies and taught her children lessons that are common for immigrant parents: that America is a land of opportunity and they should do what they could to give back to the country.

Those admonitions are part of what drives Sanders, he said, since he knows there are many skilled children and grandchildren of immigrants eager to work in top secret jobs. He also brings to the job personnel experience from the Internal Revenue Service, Office of Personnel Management and Department of Defense.

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