CIA Director Leon Panetta told Arab-American and Muslim leaders this week to join efforts to reduce the threat of terrorism in the U.S. Speaking in the heart of Michigan's large Middle Eastern community, he said the country is safer than it was when it was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, though al-Qaida still remains a threat. The speech is one of the CIA's highest-profile recruiting efforts aimed at Arab-Americans and Muslims, as the agency seeks to boost Arabic and other languages it deems critical to its work.
Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta attending iftar, the evening meal that breaks the fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
The CIA this year announced a five-year plan to boost fluency in Arabic and other languages within the agency. Panetta aims to raise foreign language proficiency inside the CIA from less than a third to at least half of all analysts and intelligence operatives. Special interest has been placed on languages such as Dari and Pashto, the primary languages spoken in Afghanistan.
"The reason I am here is because I want to reach out to the Arab community, and reach out to the Muslim community and see what we can do to help bring that community into the CIA," Panetta said.
Dearborn, Michigan, is a suburb of Detroit, the hometown of automaker Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company. It is also one of the largest Arab communities in the U.S. More than thirty percent of the population is Arab-American, the majority are of Lebanese and Iraqi heritage.
In his speech to the invitation only crowd, Director Panetta said the CIA needs officers who can operate credibly and effectively in any society. "That means they need to have language fluency. And a deep understanding of local culture," he said.
He believes tapping into the knowledge and talent of what he calls America's heritage communities, like the Arab community in Dearborn, is the best way to do that.
"We have to reflect the face of this nation, and the face of the world," he added.
But, recruiting in the Arab-American community has had its problems. After 9/11 many felt they were unfairly stereotyped as terrorists by U.S. law enforcement and immigration authorities.
We visited a cafe in Dearborn and asked patrons if it was a good idea for more Arab-Americans to join the CIA.
Nancy Jaafar, of Lebanese heritage, is a school psychologist.
"In theory, it is a good thing," she said. "But, I think there is kind of a trust component there... and not in the end of the Americans but more in the end of the Arabs themselves, in terms of where they would fit in and how they would be received."
Community leaders also say there has been dissatisfaction with policies such as the war in Iraq, allegations of torture such as water boarding and extrajudicial detentions.
Osama Siblani is president of the Arab American Political Action Committee based in Dearborn.
"And when the CIA is implementing such policies, then it becomes a double jeopardy issue for people in the community," he says. "How could you accept working for the CIA when the CIA is implementing the rules and regulations and policies that are completely opposite to what you want?"
Still, there is a strong sense of patriotism among other Arab-Americans in the Dearborn area. Henry Medina, the CIA's midwest regional recruiter says applications in the area have increased over the last few years.
"We are finding much more success working here in kind of non-traditional venues such as this," Medina says, "outside of the career fairs kind of confines if you will."
Director Panetta wants to loosen security clearance restrictions for employees with relatives in Iran or Lebanon making it easier for them to join the agency. His appearance here was well received. Many felt it was a long overdue sign the Arab community is an accepted part of the American fabric.