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CIA struggles to fill openings

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CIA struggles to fill openings

Many apply, but finding right skills remains difficult

By Dana Priest


Aug. 9 — The sign on the Northern Virginia conference room says there’s a government job fair inside. A hundred people have made the first cut — a telephone interview — and returned for the second round. But no one’s touching the free croissants and coffee. There’s no small talk. In fact, there’s no talk at all.

IN A few minutes, the seats fill, the doors close, and a woman in thin-rimmed glasses and a hair band walks to the front. “What does ‘clandestine’ mean?†she asks the group, then stops herself. “Let me say first. It is quite an experience standing up here and talking to you, because I am under cover. I have a cover.â€

That is, she has a phony job title and a fake W-2 tax form. She lies to her neighbors and deceives her family. She is, in reality, the head recruiter for the CIA’s clandestine service.

And the people listening — strait-laced young men in coats and ties, fresh-faced women in ponytails and barrettes — are tomorrow’s spies.

Therein lies a problem.

Even before Sept. 11, CIA Director George J. Tenet had begun increasing the number of operatives being brought into the agency. But after the attacks, the CIA embarked on one of its greatest recruiting drives. Tenet asked for a 70 percent increase in the number of new spies and a 25 percent increase in the Directorate of Operations, the agency’s clandestine service, which manages the agency’s counterterrorism center, espionage and paramilitary operations. The CIA has received 100,000 applications since Sept. 11, up from 60,000 during the entire previous year.

While officials are cheered that the CIA now seems to be a hot place to work, the overwhelming majority of qualified applicants are mid-twenties to early thirties, white, middle-class Americans lacking in languages such as Arabic, Farsi, Dari and Pashtun. They are not, in short, ideal candidates for penetrating the world of Islamic-based terror groups.

As the agency works to keep up with the increased demands for its services, it is having trouble adapting its workforce to the new war on terrorism — and the enemies that inhabit it.


Diversity has never been the CIA’s strong suit. Born after World War II to a handful of Ivy League WASPs, the agency withstood years of congressional pressure before it actively recruited Americans of African, Asian or Latino descent. Minorities still account for only one out of four CIA employees.

During the Cold War, it seemed enough to enlist Soviet and Chinese intelligence officers, politicians and scientists to acquire secret military plans and to calculate Moscow’s and Beijing’s intentions. With an ingrained Eurocentric culture, the CIA’s dominant model for recruiting foreign agents is still to pose as a U.S. diplomat and spot potential new assets at cocktail parties and business conferences.

These are hardly the venues frequented by Islamic extremists. And even if they were, al Qaeda and other terrorist networks organized along cultural, linguistic, religious and family lines would still be difficult to penetrate, even for native speakers.

Facing this new reality, the CIA has hired consultants to help find universities and communities with Arab American or Middle Eastern-born U.S. citizens with adequate academic and English-language skills.

“We’re rethinking our advertising,†said Bob Rebelo, the agency’s director of recruiting. “We are trying to come up with an appropriate approach to the Arab American world,†trying to “debunk myths†about the agency through local Arabic-language newspapers and to exploit the business community more than they have in the past.

But the agency has only begun to make inroads, Rebelo conceded. Although Middle Eastern terrorism has been a top priority since the mid-1990s, CIA recruiting advertisements have only recently begun to feature individuals who look like they are of Middle Eastern descent.

The agency’s greatest need is for clandestine operators who work under the Directorate of Operations, which collects intelligence from its network of CIA stations in U.S. embassies. The United States has a vast array of technological means of stealing information discreetly: intercepting phone conversations and bugging offices and cars. But it needs clandestine operators to recruit foreigners who can steal secrets.

Some intelligence experts say it is unrealistic to expect CIA operatives to penetrate terrorist groups themselves. “That isn’t how the system really works,†said Jack Devine, a CIA operations official who ran the agency’s Afghan task force in the mid-1980s. “Someone of Arab descent isn’t likely to develop the type of credibility to get into the inner circle of al Qaeda. There’s too much vetting that goes on.â€

Besides, Devine added, foreigners often don’t want to deal with other naturalized foreigners. “A Russian didn’t want to be recruited by someone of Russian descent,†he said. “They didn’t trust them. They wanted to see the American.â€

Immediately after Sept. 11, CIA employees, like those in other government agencies, were prohibited from flying. When CIA recruiters called college campuses to say they couldn’t show up for job fairs, many colleges asked them to send literature anyway and put out cardboard boxes to collect drop-off applications. These “recruiters-in-a-box,†as Rebelo fondly called them, netted 50 to 150 applicants apiece, about 3,000 in all.

Once the travel ban was lifted, the agency went into “blitz mode,†Rebelo said.

Recruiters held 200 campus events in six months, and the agency increased its Internet advertising and spent nights and weekends interviewing applicants in its Northern Virginia recruitment headquarters, located in an industrial park with a false business name. It also began holding dozens of orientation sessions across the country, like this one for clandestine service applicants from the mid-Atlantic region.

The first post-Sept. 11 class of recruits began its year-long training course in mid-July. Next in line are those who came for the orientation, if they pass the polygraph tests and interviews, accept a $45,000 to $60,000 annual salary, and are willing to live a lie.


The woman in the thin-rimmed glasses surveyed the class. “Cover is a lie and you have to live it,†she said. “But we do have ways to help you. You’re not out there trying to figure out how to doctor your W-2. We will get through that with you.â€

And by the way, she said, “Your roommates and your friends. You probably told them where you were going today. Usually it’s a good idea to tell them, ‘Ah, it’s not for me,’ that you have an interest in looking at another government agency. . . . Think about how you’re going to get out of the fact you came here today. That’s your first assignment.â€

The job of the clandestine service is to obtain intelligence for the government. To do that, operatives use foreign agents, whom they recruit to steal secrets and other information. Unlike the movies featuring black-suited daredevils who scale walls and suspend themselves from ceilings to steal nuclear weapons from enemy hands, spies spend most of their time figuring out who might help them.

“How are you going to spot people?†one instructor asked.

“Universities!†a recruit shouted.

“Think of things where you can establish contact.â€

“Social, religious organizations,†said someone else. “Mosques!â€


“The gym, golfing, that’s a good one,†the instructor answered. “If your target plays golf, a good chief of station wants the whole country covered. . . . Once I played the brassy American woman, ordering servants around.â€

This prompted a question. “Do you budget for cover?†asked a woman in diamond earrings. “If you need to fit in to high-class society, drive a nice car, belong to a nice country club to blend in.â€

“Sure,†the instructor said. “We don’t put bureaucratic hurdles up. If the target is a member of a special club, you get approval to join that club.â€

Al Qaeda and golf — let alone sports cars and high society — seem an odd fit. In fact, there were no scenarios during the five-hour orientation that suggested the targets of the CIA’s new operatives would be highly religious Muslims who don’t hang out at embassy receptions or country clubs. And nothing was offered to suggest a way to recruit them.

“I can’t go into a mosque and be accepted immediately,†a senior Directorate of Operations officer told the class. “We need diversity, people who can come in and blend into the culture, into four- or five-person groups. How do you penetrate them? I can’t.â€

A hand flew up. “How many agents is the CIA looking to hire in the next few years?â€

“If you were all competitive [qualified],†the recruiter in glasses said, “we would hire you all at this point.â€

While the demand for CIA employees shot up 40 percent across the board immediately after Sept. 11, the demand for clandestine operators increased 70 percent, Rebelo said.

Before a break, the recruiter reminded the applicants of their circumstances. “You have all signed a secrecy agreement, remember that,†she said. “And when you go into the bathroom, and you’re washing your hands, don’t discuss anything you’ve heard here.â€


Three-quarters of the first class of recruits — those already embarked on their year-long training course — are men. Half are in their twenties, half in their thirties. Nearly 70 percent were in private business, 30 percent in the military.

It includes a professional athlete, a former beer company spokesman, an actor, a trial lawyer, a Middle Eastern-born naturalized citizen, a former Navy SEAL, an Army Special Forces member and a Marine.

About 40 percent are nearly fluent in a foreign language, but only 15 percent know one of the “critical†language areas spoken by Islamic-based terrorists. Only 10 percent are second-generation immigrants who could possibly fit in Middle Eastern, East African or Asian societies, about the same percentage as the orientation class in Northern Virginia.

Many of those attracted to the CIA, according to recruiters, are motivated by patriotism and a desire to repond personally to the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I have a passion for this country and what it represents, what it was founded on, how it has progressed,†said a short-haired woman who acknowledged she was lying about her age to pass the 35-year-old age limit on recruits to the clandestine service. “I want to be a part of protecting it.â€

But patriotism and a quest for excitement are not enough to make a spy, as the recruiters at the orientation made clear.

There’s the world of lies: “My wife and my father are the only people I have told†about my real job, said the senior operations officer. “My children don’t know. My extended family doesn’t know.â€

There are dangers, too, and working a full-time cover job in some foreign firm, for example, can create one of them, an instructor told the applicants.

“You have to know where your energy comes from,†said the instructor, who worked for 12 years overseas, much of it as a spy. “Let’s say you’re meeting an agent that night,†she said. “Your cover job goes longer than you thought it would. You have to shortcut your three-hour surveillance detection run to determine whether you’re under surveillance. You get lazy and you bring surveillance there with you and your agent gets wrapped up.â€

Then she continued: “In many countries, treason results in execution. In Russia, it’s still nine grams in the back of the head. Don’t forget. You’re getting someone to commit treason in the name of the U.S. government.â€

Rebelo ended the orientation day excited by the applicants. While they looked like a sea of white Virginians, there was reason for hope.

A Somali-born graduate student approached Rebelo. “I speak Arabic and Somali, do you think that will help?†he asked.

Rebelo calmly told the man yes. But there was a bounce in his step after the man walked away. There were as many as 10 others in the room who looked like they might speak Arabic or Farsi or Chinese. “That’s 10,†Rebelo said. “And just think. Ten here, 10 there. Pretty soon you’re getting there.â€

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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