U.S. counterintelligence officials are increasingly concerned that Al Qaeda sympathizers or operatives may have tried to get jobs at the CIA and other U.S. agencies in an effort to spy on American counterterrorist efforts.
So far, about 40 Americans who sought positions at U.S. intelligence agencies have been red-flagged and turned away for possible ties to terrorist groups, the officials said. Several such applicants have been detected at the CIA.
"We think terrorist organizations have tried to insinuate people into our hiring pools," said Barry Royden, a 39-year CIA veteran who is a counterintelligence instructor at the agency.
Also, three senior counterintelligence officials said they feared terrorist groups may be trying to place an "insider" in America's fast-growing counterterrorist planning and operational networks as part of a long-term strategy to compromise U.S. intelligence efforts.
But unlike Royden, the officials added that it was still unclear if anyone had been assigned to infiltrate U.S. intelligence to commit espionage for a terrorist group. No one has been arrested, and no one has been linked to any new "sleeper cell" of suspected terrorists in America.
Royden's remarks came at a national conference on counterintelligence held over the weekend at Texas A&M; University. Other counterintelligence officials were interviewed separately.
The officials said that those who had come under suspicion were filtered out during the application process for providing false information, failing lie detector tests, applying to multiple spy services or flunking other parts of the application procedure.
But fear of possible penetration has grown because of what one official called "an intense competition" among America's intelligence, military and contractor organizations.
They are seeking to hire thousands of skilled linguists, trained analysts and clandestine operatives who can blend into overseas communities to collect intelligence and to recruit foreign agents inside terrorist cells.
In some cases, the officials said, those most qualified for such sensitive jobs -- naturalized Americans who grew up in the Middle East or South Asia, for example, and who are native speakers of Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Urdu and other crucial languages -- have proved the most difficult to vet during background checks.
In addition, because of restrictions imposed by U.S. privacy laws, authorities at one spy service may not know that someone they had rejected later found a job at another agency or at a defense contractor working on classified systems.
"We're looking at that very carefully," said one counterintelligence official.
Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network has used sophisticated reconnaissance and surveillance techniques in the past. Operatives have tested security systems at embassies and airports, taken photographs or sketched diagrams of potential targets, and used encrypted communications and computer programs to frustrate U.S. spying.
The FBI has assigned counterintelligence officers at its 56 field offices since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said Timothy D. Bereznay, a senior FBI official. The effort is less intensive than in the mid-1980s, the height of the Cold War, when the bureau assigned a fourth of its agents to spy-hunting efforts.
Despite the deployment during that era, CIA officer Aldrich H. Ames, FBI agent Robert P. Hanssen and other American moles compromised hundreds of secret agents and intelligence projects, causing far more damage to national security than any spy sent by Moscow or its allies.
The Sept. 11 commission and several congressional investigations have sharply criticized the CIA and other intelligence agencies for hiring too few linguists who are fluent in Arabic or other target languages. They also have cited the CIA's failure to recruit or plant any agents inside Al Qaeda who could provide reliable intelligence.
With vast increases in funding from Congress after the 2001 attacks, the 15 U.S. intelligence agencies launched sweeping recruitment programs. Most have been deluged with thousands of resumes and job applications, forcing several spy services to contract background checks to private firms.
The CIA director, Porter J. Goss, last month gave the White House plans to increase by 50% the number of CIA clandestine officers and analysts in an effort to improve intelligence on terrorist groups and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. During his Senate confirmation hearings in September, Goss said the agency would need years to train and deploy enough case officers to meet the current challenge.
"The great bulk of what we need is more than five years out there," he said at the time.
The National Security Agency, the spy service that eavesdrops on communications to collect intelligence, announced plans last fall to hire 7,500 employees over the next five years to push the total NSA payroll to about 35,000. Among those being sought are linguists in Arabic and Chinese, regional analysts, communications signals intelligence specialists and computer experts.
The Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency also has taken its job search public, running ads for human intelligence officers for the first time in the Economist and other publications. The little-known DIA hired TMP Worldwide, a New York-based advertising and communications firm, to improve its name recognition and attract more candidates.
The need to vastly improve counterintelligence efforts dominated the weekend Texas conference, which drew scores of current and former intelligence officials. The Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, which Congress created in 2002 to coordinate counterintelligence efforts across the government, cosponsored the conclave, which was open to the media.
Michelle Van Cleave, director of the office, said the Bush administration had adopted a strategy that called for more pre-emptive action against foreign intelligence services and others viewed as threats to national security. She and other officials described the United States as the principal target for intelligence services from up to 90 countries around the world.
Paul Redmond, a longtime CIA officer who works for the counterintelligence office, called it an "actuarial certainty" that spies have infiltrated U.S. security agencies. He warned that, because of efforts since Sept. 11 to more widely share critical intelligence as part of broader reforms, the danger of espionage was growing.
"I think we're worse off than we've ever been," he said.
R. James Woolsey, who served as CIA director from 1993 to 1995, urged the agency to step up protections against spying by adherents of Wahabism and other extreme forms of militant Islam, which he compared to the threat from Soviet-era Communism.
"The Wahabis are not just a religious movement," he said.
Lisa Bronson, the undersecretary of Defense in charge of vetting exports of defense-related materials, said China has "2,000 to 3,000 front companies" working in America to obtain so-called dual-use civilian equipment or information that could be used to help Beijing's military.
Retired Navy Adm. William O. Studeman, a former NSA director who now sits on a panel that is reviewing U.S. intelligence efforts for the White House, said that "advertent and inadvertent leaks have now rivaled espionage" to compromise classified information.
Several speakers said that hacking of classified U.S. computer systems could pose the most dangerous threat. Spies who once needed to patiently photograph page after page of secret documents now, in theory, can quickly transmit millions of computerized pages into cyberspace or onto tiny devices holding gigabytes of data.
Former President George H.W. Bush, whose presidential library is at Texas A&M;, opened the weekend conference with a fervent defense of the CIA. He headed the agency from November 1975 to January 1977.
Bush said it "burns me up to see the agency under fire" for flawed intelligence on prewar Iraq. He compared recent criticism to the Watergate-era congressional probes of domestic spying, assassination plots and other illegal CIA operations.
Congress "unleashed a bunch of untutored little jerks out there" to investigate the CIA then, Bush said. The inquiries, led by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) and Rep. Otis G. Pike (D-N.Y.), led Congress to create the first intelligence oversight committees and to pass numerous laws to prevent further abuses.