CIA weighs process to hire Arabic linguists
New York Times
Jun. 12, 2005
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Among other concerns, the former officials said, CIA officers who had close
relatives abroad might be more susceptible to blackmail.