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Recruiting spies: tricks of a murky trade

The CIA makes progress, but critics say it is hampered by Muslim bitterness against the US and other challenges.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 2, 2004


To understand one reason why the CIA and FBI may be having trouble recruiting the kind of informants that would be the most effective against Al Qaeda, just talk to "Mohammed."

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A devout Muslim immigrant fluent in Arabic who's been in the country for six years, he's got no use for Al Qaeda, or the US government. Soon after 9/11 he was thrown in jail for two months - "detained" was the word used by the Justice Department. He says he was shackled, questioned, and intimidated before he was finally let go. Add to that the war in Iraq, in which he believes innocent Muslims are being killed, and he scoffs at the idea of helping the US government, no matter how despicable he finds Osama bin Laden.

"Why should I want to help people like that, people who are killing my Muslim brothers everyday?" asks the computer specialist, standing in a coffee shop in Brooklyn. He asked that his real name not be used for fear of retribution.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks exposed the inadequacy of American intelligence's clandestine services - its lack of spies on the ground and native speakers in countries that are terrorist hotbeds - the agencies have made great strides. All analysts agree on that. The CIA has been graduating the largest classes of spies and analysts ever, and it turns away thousands of applicants a year, including many Arab Americans eager to fight Al Qaeda and terrorism.

But there's also general consensus the Central Intelligence Agency and its 14 brethren spy agencies still have great lengths still to go build a truly effective spy network that can regularly infiltrate Al Qaeda and its proliferating franchises around the world. Before stepping down, George Tenet told Congress he believed it would take another five years to fully rebuild the agency's clandestine operations. Other analysts contend a more realistic assessment is 10 to 15 years.

Complications for recruitment

That work is complicated by several factors, including an evolving understanding of the nature of the terrorist threat, and ethical questions about what lengths Americans should go to protect the country. Another big stumbling block, according to some critics: the way the government has handled the Arab American and Muslim communities in the wake of 9/11.

"It's difficult to recruit people to join organizations when they feel besieged by them," says Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington. "The detentions ... the foreign policies in the Muslim world, you name it. Muslims are feeling besieged by it these days."

The CIA, which receives 2,000 applications on its website each week, says those perceptions have not hampered its ability to recruit. "We've had a very successful recruiting program that focused on the Arab American communities in Detroit and Tampa," says CIA spokesman Tim Crispell. "We've gotten terrific responses from those communities, at least from people who've expressed interested in working in the intelligence field."

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office found that while the FBI has also made progress in retooling itself to meet terror threats, the number of counterterrorism agents is "still not sufficient to handle the workload."