The CIA (search) is looking to revamp hiring rules that reportedly have led to the agency turning away large numbers of Arabic-language linguists and other potential field operatives whose expertise has been highly sought since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Congressional and intelligence officials said many of the potential recruits rejected have been first-generation Americans but their family ties abroad have raised alarm among some security officers, according to an article in The New York Times on Wednesday.
The CIA has been trying to boost the number of Arabic speakers and experts in its ranks as it seeks to improve its intelligence gathering capabilities in the Middle East and Asia. Former intelligence officials told the newspaper that besides the barriers to conducting thorough background checks of CIA recruits in countries that raise red flags — such as Syria or Iran — the agency is also worried that recruits could be blackmailed or their families made vulnerable if authorities in their native countries learn operatives' names.
President Bush has ordered the CIA to increase ranks in its clandestine service and analytical branch by more than 50 percent over the next five years. Although agency officials say reasons for turning some potential workers away were good ones, the numbers of those rejected could be in the hundreds.
"The answer is not to weaken the standards," one former senior intelligence official told the Times. "But it may be that we are using the standards in a way that is archaic by the needs of the time."
A report attached to the intelligence authorization bill issued last week said that the CIA was behind in development of Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, and Pashto language programs.
"Year after year, this committee has insisted that the intelligence community recruit a more culturally diverse cadre of analysts and officers, especially seeking individuals proficient in critical languages such as Arabic, Chinese, and, the much less well known languages including Pashto and Urdu," the report states. "The committee is heartened by the president's call to increase significantly the number of human intelligence and analytic officers in the intelligence community."
Lawmakers have called on Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte (search) — to "promptly establish and oversee the implementation of a multi-level security clearance system across the intelligence community to leverage the cultural and linguistic skills of subject matter experts and individuals proficient in foreign languages critical to national security."
The report does note, however, that the CIA and other intelligence agencies are showing that they're making "modest change" toward building up those language abilities.
Rep. Jane Harman (search), a California Democrat who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, said the CIA could look to the National Security Agency (search) for a good model to emulate. At the NSA, which intercepts communications from around the world, a multi-level security clearance system allows non-American citizens to be hired on limited cases and allows certain jobs to be filled by employees with less than top secret clearances.
Former intelligence officials said just because a potential CIA employee had relatives living in red-flag countries doesn't automatically disqualify them but it may pose an obstacle to top secret clearance.
"Is it harder to get through our checks if you have lived abroad most of your life, or if your mother or father still live there? Of course," the former intelligence official told the New York Times. But "there are no panaceas to the fact that there are not enough Arabic speakers, and to lower the standards would result in absolutely certain, surefire disaster, in terms of opening the way for possible penetration by hostile countries or groups."