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CIA efforts to recruit Arab Americans hit bumps

The agency yanks ads from a paper and withdraws staff from a festival in a pair of flaps that highlight its challenges in seeking diverse employees.

September 24, 2011|By Ken Dilanian and Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times
  • Central Intelligence Agency employees fill balloons outside the CIA tent during the 15th Annual Dearborn Arab International Festival in Dearborn, MI.
Central Intelligence Agency employees fill balloons outside the CIA tent… (Jeffrey Sauger / Special…)

The CIA's long-standing effort to recruit Arab Americans is hitting some bumps.

The agency yanked advertisements for linguists off the website of the nation's largest and oldest Arab American newspaper on Sept. 8, reportedly because the paper had published a story about domestic spying on Muslims.

The CIA restored the ads to the newspaper, the Arab American News, based in Dearborn, Mich., last Wednesday after the paper ran an editorial questioning the CIA's commitment to freedom of the press. The agency said it regretted "any misunderstandings."

Then, on Friday, the CIA withdrew its recruiting and outreach staff from an Arab American Day Festival in Anaheim, which draws about 20,000 people. The CIA has paid about $10,000 annually to help sponsor the fair for the last four years.

The problem this year: A protest was planned against the festival's founder, Ahmad Alam, because local critics said his Arabic-language newspaper, Al-Alam Al-Arabi, was supporting the Bashar Assad regime that has been killing pro-democracy protesters in Syria.

The mishaps highlight some of the challenges the spy service faces as it tries to recruit Americans from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds to help penetrate intelligence targets in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

The agency has grown sharply over the last decade to about 25,000 employees today. Just 22% are nonwhite, and only 13% are proficient in a language other than English, former director Leon Panetta said in 2009.

The CIA declined to say if those figures have changed. But it's clear the agency has made a special effort to recruit Arabic-speakers and Muslims, using print ads, speakers and other programs to ease concerns about the agency's role in some of the most controversial episodes of the war against Al Qaeda.

"It's part of our larger outreach efforts and strategy of outreach to the Middle Eastern community," said Cindy Lodge, CIA's chief of community outreach. "What we're trying to do is … increase awareness in the communities about the work that we do, and dispel some of the myths of what we're all about."

It's a tough climb. Like anyone else who joins the CIA, Arab Americans who have family living overseas face special hurdles before they can obtain required security clearances, for example.

The troubles last week added fresh difficulties.

"The trust … has been damaged a great deal" by the ad flap at his newspaper, said Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News.

In Anaheim, the CIA pulled out of the Arab American Day Festival when Ammar Kahf, a local activist, vowed to organize a protest against festival founder Alam for backing the Syrian regime.

"One of the tactics that has enabled the Syrian regime to survive for this many years is its ability to recruit business people to support them when needed," Kahf said. "They are acting as proxies of the regime."

Alam said his editor in chief had voiced support for the Syrian ruler and had since resigned. Alam dismissed Kahf and his supporters as fringe protesters.

"These people don't represent the community at all," he said.

Dilanian reported from the Washington Bureau. Abdulrahim reported from Los Angeles.

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