boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
JULIETTE KAYYEM

Changing the color of intelligence

THE MAJORITY of the 9/11 commission report's recommendations fall into two broad categories: the architectural fixes to restructure our intelligence community and the "hearts and minds" fixes to address rising anti-US animus in the Arab and Muslim world. But the "how" we get intelligence and "how" we communicate our interests are only part of the solution. Until our intelligence agencies place important focus on "who" is in fact doing the gathering and communicating, we will continue to be at a critical disadvantage against our enemies.

The question of "who" isn't simply a matter of language (which can be taught), or education (which can be acquired), or salary (which can be increased.) It is also about innate characteristics. It is time to begin an essential, and difficult, discussion about the racial and ethnic makeup of our intelligence agents, a makeup that at the moment remains predominantly white.

The fact is, finding good people to place in undercover assignments overseas is like casting for a theatrical role, and sometimes white guys just can't play the part. While it is not clear that any agent could have infiltrated Al Qaeda before Sept. 11, the more diffuse and dispersed jihad threat we face now is considerably more permeable. We need to get credible agents inside these networks, and white agents will not work. No matter how much we emphasize more clandestine operations, agents will always be reluctant to try to go undercover in places where they are clearly not locals, and for good reason.

Efforts at public diplomacy will also be more successful with a national security community that looks more like the world. Our hopes to promote democracy -- to let the Arab, as well as African, Latin American, and Asian, world know that we identify with their struggle -- will require spokespeople who can be viewed as part of that community, who might have a stake in the future of these countries.

Having agents with the appropriate ethnic background may also help in other intelligence tasks, or at least mitigate some of the problems with our attempts to get information at any cost. Lost in the debate about torture at Abu Ghraib was the story of the Arab-American FBI translator who has been very successful in getting information from detainees by identifying with them and using "good cop" tactics, including prayers and discussions about Arab culture.

While the intelligence community has made efforts to recruit minorities and distance itself from its elite status, it has not done enough. Most of the diversity hiring within the United States has focused on recruiting members of the Arab and Muslim community to be translators, though even that effort has come up relatively short, according to a report by the General Accouting Office. And according to testimony by a CIA official last year, the numbers of minorities being trained to infiltrate terror cells, for instance, is small, and there are many fewer minorities in the intelligence community than in the general federal and civilian labor force. (The raw numbers are classified.)   Continued...

1   2    Next 
SEARCH GLOBE ARCHIVES
   
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months