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.
NEW YORK — 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."
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.
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."
Compounding the problem is competition among intelligence agencies and private sector firms that all are vying for the same small pool of experienced translators and intelligence analysts knowledgeable about the Arab American and Muslim communities. So even as the FBI has beefed up its human intelligence expertise, it's also lost hundreds of experienced agents, in part, because it's easier to get ahead professionally in the CIA and the National Security Agency.
But critics say those agencies are also finding it challenging to enlist the kind of intelligence assets that would be most effective against Islamic terrorism - the Mohammeds of the world who can move easily between cultures here at home and on different sides of the globe.
A primary part of the problem is that resentment generated by post 9/11 policies, according to Harvard University's Juliette Kayyem. But she contends it's also because the intelligence agencies "aren't trying hard enough" in reaching out to minority communities.
"The raw numbers are classified, but they have disclosed that minority recruitment of covert operatives is well below the national average of minorities in America and well below the employment of minorities in the federal governments," says Ms. Kayyem. That's been exacerbated by a backlog of background checks, which she says can take as much as a year.
There's also the challenge of learning how to operate in the field, which can take many years to master - and the question of how willing America is to get its hands dirty in spying. "You don't just knock at bin Laden's gate and say, 'Hey, we're here to join,'" says Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy and a former security adviser to President Bush.
An undercover operative often won't be truly trusted by the enemy until he has proven himself. "If a person is required to commit a crime or a murder to get into one of these terrorist cells, is that a price that's too high for this American democracy to bear if it means the prevention of the death of tens of thousands of people, or even four people?" asks Kevin O'Connell, an intelligence expert at the RAND Corp.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration changed the CIA guidelines in dealing with Al Qaeda. While they are still classified, one high level source says "the gloves are off."
Still, Mr. O'Connell believes that it's crucial for the American public to become more educated about intelligence issues so it can discuss and debate them.
The nation has to work "to strike a balance between what we need to do to accomplish the mission and what we're comfortable with as a society," he says. Agents who've been on the ground agree, but they also argue that the nation must be aware that it's dealing with an enemy that does not hew to any constitution or the Geneva Conventions.
"We have to be careful that we don't bind ourselves to rules that our enemy doesn't follow," says Ron Marks, a former CIA official. "Al Qaeda's bottom line is the total destruction of the United States. They're not pussyfooting around. They want us dead and gone."
But Mr. Cilluffo and other analysts note that Americans also don't want to end up jeopardizing the very freedoms and civil liberties that they're fighting to protect. "It's a delicate balance, and the consequences of not doing it right are potentially catastrophic in the world we live in today," O'Connell concludes.