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US Ethnic Communities Wary of Spy Agencies' Recruitment

U.S. intelligence agencies have embarked on an ambitious program to hire new recruits from America's ethnic communities, particularly among Arabs and Muslims. But the effort has encountered skepticism from the immigrant communities. VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports on the intelligence recruitment drive.

A recent meeting between intelligence recruiters and more than one dozen representatives of what the government calls "heritage communities" underscores the resistance the recruiters are encountering from ethnic Americans.

At the gathering, held in a nondescript office building outside Washington, officials from various government agencies, such as the CIA, FBI, and National Security Agency, wanted to talk about how to reach out to the immigrant communities. But the ethnic representatives said lingering concerns about some U.S. activities make it difficult to sell the idea of a career in intelligence to their members.

In an interview, lawyer Amina Khan, who represented the Association of Pakistani Professionals, said the intelligence community has to rebut suspicion and skepticism, particularly in the Muslim community.

"Of course there is going to be some cynicism on the part of heritage communities in terms of why they [the intelligence agencies] are coming around," said Amina Khan. "I mean, there are political mistakes that have been made. I think, like, Guantanamo Bay, other 'renditions.' I mean, there are other very, very difficult issues."

The failure to intercept the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 spurred U.S. intelligence agencies to try to recruit new analysts and field officers who possess special skills, especially fluency in key languages such as Arabic, Persian, Dari, Pashto, and Urdu. The best place to find such people, they reasoned, is among the first- and second-generation immigrants who have become American citizens.

But until recently rules barred intelligence agencies from recruiting people who have close relatives abroad.

Amina Khan says the 9/11 attacks also sparked what many Muslims believe was a new bias by the government.

"All of a sudden law-abiding American Muslims and Arab-American communities were faced with the federal government in their lives," said Khan. "And I think a lot of communities were suspect without reasonable cause."

There are also cultural concerns. Mohamad Majid, imam of a mosque in suburban Virginia, said many immigrants come from countries where intelligence agencies are synonymous with secret police activities.

"You talk about the migrants who come from overseas where the intelligence community there acts outside of the law," said Mohamad Majid. "Everything goes. You can be arrested, you can disappear, no one knows about you."

Some participants also pointed out that being a spy is a dishonorable profession in their particular culture.

As the intelligence recruiters at the meeting tried to steer the discussion to outreach, many of the ethnic representatives raised their concerns about such issues as CIA renditions of terrorist suspects, warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency, and watch lists at airports. One CIA recruiter rose to ask that the discussion get back on track to recruitment issues.

But Assistant Director of National Intelligence Ronald Sanders said such issues are legitimate topics when talking about intelligence recruitment.

In an interview, Sanders, who is in effect the chief personnel officer for the U.S. intelligence community, said only by addressing such concerns will the intelligence agencies have any hope of getting the recruits they need.

"They know that we cannot be as open on everything as they would probably like," said Ronald Sanders. "On the other hand, as I said, I think I get it. We cannot keep the conversation narrowly focused on recruiting and retention. We have to open up, we have to be candid, we have to talk about some of these issues. 'A', as a way of building their trust, but, 'B', as a way of informing them so that they can inform their communities and in some cases even set the record straight."

Addressing the meeting, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell said he is ordering increased sensitivity training for intelligence community employees. He also said he is implementing new procedures to shorten the time it takes to grant the security clearances required for new intelligence employees, a process that has taken up to a 1.5 or even two years, especially for naturalized citizens.