EL PASO, Texas, Aug. 15 (UPI) -- When Jose Rodriguez, a 30-year veteran undercover CIA officer, stepped into the spotlight this week -- an experience he compared to dropping his trousers in public -- it was for a purpose: He is to become the CIA's poster boy in its drive to recruit more ethnic minorities.
Rodriguez runs the National Clandestine Service, which recruits human sources -- spies as they are popularly known -- for U.S. intelligence. A Puerto Rican who joined the agency in 1976, he says he is the most senior minority official in U.S. intelligence.
"In the senior ranks," he told United Press International in an exclusive interview, "I'm the only minority within sight."
CIA spokesman George Little told UPI that 21 percent of all agency staff -- and 24 percent of new hires -- are minorities, but anecdotal evidence from other officials suggests that they tend to be concentrated among the less senior and support staff. Rodriguez said, for instance, that only 14 percent of the staff in his own elite clandestine service are minorities.
At a reception earlier this year for new recruits to the CIA, Rodriguez recounted, "Some of them (new minority hires) came to talk to me. … They were asking almost, 'How did you do it?' As if there was some trick I could share with them. … In many cases they don't realize that they can do it on their own."
But, he adds, they can: "Si, se puede!" -- Yes, it can be done -- "I am the living proof."
To show that proof to more people, Rodriguez says human resources officials at the clandestine service, formerly known as the CIA Directorate of Operations, had been asking him "for a while" to get his undercover status revoked -- "rolled back" in CIA parlance.
Now that it has been, he is able to appear in public for the first time, an experience he compared to "dropping trou'," but which he willingly underwent so that he could help out with the agency's drive to recruit more minorities; especially first- and second-generation Americans.
"Diversity is a mission-critical objective," he explained.
House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas -- one of the organizers of the border-security conference where Rodriguez appeared in public for the first time -- told UPI that diversity "is one of our natural strengths as a nation."
"The very people that we need to speak the languages, understand the cultures, are the ones who have come to America from distant shores," Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell told the conference. "So, our focus is to get a more diverse culture, particularly first-generation Americans, and particularly from those groups that are currently targeting this country."
The problem, McConnell explained, is that since the Cold War, U.S. intelligence "not through law or policy but by habit has adopted a position of screening out first-generation Americans."
"We're going to change those habits," he declared.
But it may not be that simple. "If your family comes from another country," said Rodriguez, security and background investigators "need to reach back. … That takes time -- too long in some cases" where talented recruits get tired of waiting for their security clearance and abandon the application process for a more lucrative private-sector post.
"We are competing with private enterprise for the brightest and the best," he said. "They offer more money, we offer a unique mission."
(Part 2: Roadblocks to diversity)