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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Recruiters Try to Put a New Face on the CIA

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 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 undercover. I have a cover."

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 the problem.

Even before Sept. 11, CIA Director George 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 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.

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-Qaida 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 it has in the past.

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.

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 boxes 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. It also began holding dozens of orientation sessions across the country, like this one for clandestine service applicants from the mid-Atlantic region.

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.

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.

About 40 percent are nearly fluent in a foreign language, but only 15 percent know one of the "critical" languages spoken by Islamic-based terrorists. Only 10 percent are second-generation immigrants who could possibly fit into 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 respond personally to the Sept. 11 attacks.

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

"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."

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."

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."