As many as 40 possible terrorists may have attempted to infiltrate U.S. intelligence agencies in recent months, CIA expert Barry Royden reported at a national counterintelligence conference in March. If that news isn't sufficiently terrifying, consider this chilling paradox: Though the agencies caught the potential spies at the job application stage, post-Sept. 11 pressures to quickly boost staffing make it increasingly likely that a terrorist could sneak into the intelligence community's ranks.
Since Al Qaeda's attacks on New York and Washington four years ago, the Sept. 11 commission and other investigative bodies have criticized intelligence agencies for failing to hire enough qualified personnel. President Bush ordered the CIA to increase analytic and operational personnel by 50%.
In response, intelligence agencies have launched ambitious campaigns to attract new recruits, even enlisting advertising agencies and running glitzy commercials. But this scramble to hire leaves agencies vulnerable, as a woefully small number of security analysts attempt to vet the flood of applicants. Job seekers with the native language skills and overseas experience that much intelligence work requires are among the most difficult to screen for security.
This conundrum comes to light as intelligence agencies have finally recognized that Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups operate like traditional intelligence services. Terrorists spy before they terrorize. They case and observe their targets. They collect intelligence about their enemy's vulnerabilities from publicly available information and by eliciting secrets from unwitting sources. Like intelligence officers, terrorists also practice tradecraft -- the art of blending seamlessly into a society's fabric for months or years before striking.
Consider two men whom U.S. officials have linked to Al Qaeda: Iyman Faris, a naturalized U.S. citizen, exploited his job as a truck driver to plan ways to sabotage bridges and derail trains across the country. And Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member and a convert to Islam, could maneuver in Western society without the scrutiny given those of Middle Eastern background. Padilla's ultimate mission, allegedly, was to explode a "dirty bomb" in a U.S. city.
Considering their backgrounds, these recruits would presumably have failed to pass muster if they attempted to find jobs in U.S. intelligence.
But what about John Walker Lindh? Dubbed the American Talib, Lindh was of a different mold. He came from an affluent Marin County suburb, had decent academic credentials and no criminal record. If the U.S. hadn't captured him in Afghanistan, if he'd simply returned home to the U.S. after his secret training and indoctrination, his knowledge of Arabic and Middle East travel may have made him an attractive candidate for U.S. intelligence. That others with similar experience will infiltrate intelligence agencies is a real risk.
In the war on terrorism, intelligence has replaced the Cold War's tanks and fighter planes as the primary weapon against an unseen enemy.
A single mole in the CIA, the National Security Agency or the FBI could inflict far more damage to national security than Soviet spies did during the Cold War. Because the U.S. and Soviet Union never went head-to-head in war, the Soviets never fully exploited the advantages from its spies.
Now, however, our nation is at war. Imagine the damage Al Qaeda could do with the help of an infiltrator such as FBI spy Robert Hanssen or CIA traitor Aldrich Ames, each of whom passed a wealth of classified material to the Russians.
To prevent that sort of catastrophe, our intelligence agencies need to strike a difficult balance. Starting immediately, they need to develop common databases to share hiring information, and they need to add investigators and counterintelligence experts to bolster security screening.
Senior officials must resist political pressure and exercise patience in investigating each applicant thoroughly. U.S. counterintelligence safeguards must remain impregnable even as agencies push to replenish the depleted ranks of intelligence professionals.