WASHINGTON — 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.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 09, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 79 words Type of Material: Correction
Intelligence applicants -- An article in Tuesday's Section A about concerns among counterintelligence officials that Al Qaeda sympathizers might be trying to get jobs at U.S. intelligence agencies said Barry Royden, a CIA counterintelligence expert, disagreed with other counterintelligence officials, and suggested that Royden had determined that terrorist groups had assigned people to infiltrate the CIA. In fact, Royden does not disagree with his colleagues, who said it was unclear whether Al Qaeda supporters were seeking to commit espionage.
"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.