Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Changing the Color of Intelligence

| Aug. 03, 2004

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.)

A lot of the difficulty in recruiting from the Arab and Muslim community can be traced to the Justice Department's aggressive and antagonistic programs after 9/11, including widespread interrogations and detentions and immigrant monitoring. For the last six months, I have been conducting interviews with American Arabs and Muslims on this topic. In one interview, an Arab-American former government employee said: "It is hard to convince others in my community to join the US government. It isn't like it's a badge of honor. Not now, not after all that has gone on."

In addition, once hired, many members of the Arab and Islamic community feel overwhelmed and sidelined by a culture that is predominantly white and male. Feelings of distrust and questions of allegiance make retaining Arabs and Muslims in counterterrorism efforts difficult. The firing of more than 37 translators, many of them minorities, under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy seemed to many more like retribution for being nonwhite rather than for being gay.

The greatest impediment to better diversity is sometimes viewed as the difficulty in getting security clearances for Arab and Muslim Americans, many of whom were born in other countries, travel abroad, and have families in parts of the world that we view as dangerous. This may be true, but it is not an insurmountable barrier.

Moreover, responsible leaders of the Arab and Muslim community should be promoting government service, regardless of how that community feels about this particular administration.

After urban riots in the 1960s and 1970s, local police departments recognized that a commitment to diversity would make for better law enforcement. Within national security, we need to start admitting the same. A month ago, the Senate Intelligence Report criticizing the lead-up to the war in Iraq only hints at the issues. When committee staff asked why the CIA had not considered placing a CIA officer in Iraq years before Operation Iraqi Freedom to investigate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs, a CIA officer said: "Because it's very hard to sustain. It takes a rare office who can go in and survive scrutiny — for a long time."'

The report does not say it, but it's right beneath the surface: A predominantly white intelligence community may have been adequate during the Cold War but no longer. With the threat we face, the quality of our intelligence is inextricably linked to the color of those who gather it.

Juliette Kayyem, a former member of the National Commission on Terrorism, teaches national security at the Kennedy School of Government.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kayyem, Juliette.“Changing the Color of Intelligence.” The Boston Globe, August 3, 2004.

The Author

Juliette Kayyem