CIA weighs process to hire Arabic linguists
New York Times
Jun. 12, 2005
Douglas Jehl

WASHINGTON - The CIA is reviewing security procedures that have led the agency to turn away large numbers of Arabic-language linguists and other potential recruits with skills avidly sought by the agency since the attacks of 2001, congressional and intelligence officials say.

Many of those rejected, the officials say, have been first-generation Americans who bring the linguistic facility and cultural knowledge that the CIA has been trying to develop in seeking to improve its performance in penetrating terrorist organizations and gathering intelligence in the Middle East and South Asia.

Many of these applicants also still have relatives abroad, often in countries that raise alarm among security officers. Former intelligence officials say that besides the problems of conducting thorough background checks in those countries, the agency also worries that recruits could be blackmailed if their families were vulnerable. The CIA prides itself on security guidelines that remain the strictest in government, allowing the hiring only of American citizens with a top-secret clearance. In recruiting for its clandestine service, the agency invites applications only from those under 35 years old. advertisement

Turning away applicants

The officials would not say how many otherwise-qualified applicants had been turned away for security reasons, and they cautioned that in some cases the security concerns may have been well-founded. But they suggested that the numbers could range from the scores into the many hundreds, at a time when President Bush has ordered the CIA to increase the ranks of its clandestine service and its analytical branch by 50 percent each over the next five years.

"We are taking a fresh look at the process to determine what works, what doesn't, and what can be done better," said Jennifer Millerwise, the top CIA spokeswoman.

Among the possibilities under review are revised standards for background checks and the creation of job categories subject to less stringent requirements. But the CIA is likely to resist anything perceived as a scaling back of security restrictions.

Rep. Jane Harman of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the goal of any review should be "to allow people who have relatives in other countries to help us out if they are law-abiding patriotic Americans."

CIA goals unmet

In a unanimous report issued last week, Republicans and Democrats on the committee joined in complaining that the CIA is lagging behind targets set by Congress in developing expertise in languages like Arabic, Farsi, Chinese, Pashtu and Urdu. But Congress and intelligence officials appear divided over how to address the problem, with CIA officials concerned that any lowering of security barriers could prove disastrous.

Any final decision is likely to fall to John Negroponte who, as the new director of national intelligence, oversees the CIA and 14 other agencies. In its report, issued on June 2 to accompany a bill authorizing spending for intelligence programs in 2006, the House committee urged Negroponte to put in place a more flexible security system designed "to leverage the cultural and linguistic skills" of unconventional hires that it says may be "critical to national security."

According to former intelligence officials, the fact that a potential CIA employee had close relatives abroad would not automatically be disqualifying. But they said the security office had traditionally treated such relationships as a major obstacle to a top-secret clearance, particularly if relatives were in countries where it would be difficult for the CIA to conduct a background investigation, or if there was any hint that relatives had ties to terror organizations.

Among other concerns, the former officials said, CIA officers who had close relatives abroad might be more susceptible to blackmail.