The U.S. is its own worst enemy when it comes to the desperately important task of recruiting immigrants as spies, analysts and translators in the war on terror, new Americans are telling intelligence officials. The government’s policies raise suspicions and fear in the immigrants’ home countries and disturb potential recruits here who might otherwise want to help.
The U.S. knows it needs the help. At the heart of a Friday summit with immigrant groups was a stark reality: The intelligence agencies lack people who can speak the languages that are needed most, like Arabic, Farsi and Pashtu. More importantly, the agencies lack people with the cultural awareness that allows them to grasp the nuances embedded in dialect, body language and even street graffiti.
At the suburban Virginia summit, not far from the CIA and National Counterterrorism Center, officials gathered more than a dozen representatives of recent immigrant and other ethnic groups to get their recruiting assistance.
“We are going to ask you to open up your communities to us,” said Ronald Sanders, an assistant national intelligence director, and the son of an Egyptian immigrant mother.
The officials got an earful in return—about immigration and hiring rules and foreign policies that make life harder in immigrants’ old countries. The intelligence agencies’ own practices also came under criticism: extraordinary rendition, holding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, harsh interrogation practices that some say amount to torture.
One major need now is for people who can speak the languages most needed in the anti-terror fight. The children of immigrants, even if they don’t grow up speaking their parents’ language, can learn it to the required level of proficiency in 16 weeks. It takes people without that cultural heritage about 63 weeks, according to Jean AbiNader, a government cultural trainer with IdeaCom. Inc.
And then there are cultural matters as well. Immigrants and their children don’t need to learn these things; they can teach them.
The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI are collaborating on a summer internship program to begin to tap that expertise. Twenty college students are coming to Washington, D.C. for 10 weeks. They will get free Arabic classes in the morning at George Washington University and spend the afternoons working in the agencies’ intelligence offices.
“We need these people, their expertise, their understanding of culture, of language. We don’t have it today and it is a great deficiency,” Allen said. “This will be an enormous augmentation.”
U.S. policies have until recently forbidden recruitment of first-generation Americans who have direct family ties abroad, a practice that began after World War II, despite the fact that many code breakers in that conflict were not born in America, said National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell.
New rules drop that obstacle, he said. Still, the security clearance process can take 12 to 18 months for a citizen without close ties abroad. It can go on for years for children of recent immigrants. McConnell wants to shorten that to 60 days.
The agencies will try to contain the risk of giving people with close foreign associations access to top secret information by increasing the scrutiny that all employees get once they are cleared, a practice known as life cycle monitoring.
McConnell told the meeting of immigrant community leaders that he is increasing sensitivity training for the 100,000 employees of the intelligence agencies.