"A diverse workforce is one of the most powerful resources we can have," Don Cryer, a special assistant to Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in November 2003.
The sentiment was echoed by other senior officials testifying, and one lawmaker even joked that -- on the basis of the testimony he had heard -- "we might as well pack up and go home, because everything is OK."
But in reality, Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., continued, "The numbers are horrible."
Nearly four years on, are they any better now?
“We’ve seen some progress since then,” Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, told United Press International this week at a conference on border security he organized in El Paso with the University of Texas.
Reyes, one of the Intelligence Committee members who pressed for that 2003 hearing as part of a small, but continuing, personal crusade on the issue, is now the chairman of the committee. He said a new generation of leadership in U.S. intelligence “finally gets that diversity is one our natural strengths as a nation.”
Indeed the CIA says that 21 percent of its staff -- and 24 percent of new hires -- are minorities. That compares very favorably with the executive branch as a whole, which -- according to the Web site of White House Office of Personnel Management -- employed about 16 percent minorities in 2004.
But observations from officials and some other figures suggest minority employees in U.S. intelligence agencies have traditionally been concentrated in less senior and support roles.
Jose Rodriguez, the recently emerged head of the National Clandestine Service -- the elite U.S. intelligence component that recruits human sources, better known as spies -- said that only 14 percent of his staff were minorities.
"We are working hard to turn this around,” he told the border-security conference.
The office of Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell -- who has said diversity is a priority for all of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies he oversees -- would not release figures for U.S. intelligence as a whole.
“Those statistics are not available in a public form,” Spokeswoman Vanee Vines told UPI.
Reyes was keen to stress that the aim is “not to push quotas.” And Rodriguez dismissed the idea in relation to his own career, which has made him the most senior minority intelligence official. “Our government would not have put someone in charge of the nation's clandestine counter-terrorism (human intelligence) operations,” he said of his 2002 promotion to head the CIA’s counter-terrorism center, “merely to satisfy a diversity requirement or quota.
“I was put in charge because I brought something unique to the mission.”
“It’s the different perspective that diversity will bring to the table,” he elaborated later in an interview. “The challenge to the conventional wisdom.”
Rodriguez said that recruiting minority Americans with linguistic and cultural backgrounds in common with target groups like terrorists was just one way in which U.S. agencies were devoting “a hell of a lot more time and effort and resources to the problem.”
But he added, “There is more of a gap (between what can be achieved and what is being achieved) here (in minority recruitment) than anywhere else.”
He also challenged the automatic assumption that operatives with the same linguistic or cultural background as their targets would find it easier to recruit human sources.
“In reality in many places in the world, they would rather deal with a person who fits their idea of what an American is. … They feel they know what they are dealing with.”
Reyes demurred at the suggestion that, as chairman, he now has a bigger stick to wave at those who might fail to make diversity a priority, but there can be no doubt that his newfound clout has at least given the issue a higher profile.
At the conference Reyes organized this week, Rodriguez was joined by another storied veteran of the CIA, Charles Allen -- now at the Department of Homeland Security -- and senior military and FBI officials to drive home the diversity message.
“We don’t have that linguistic, area and cultural knowledge that diversity brings at the level we need,” Allen told UPI in an interview, blaming a Cold War mindset in which no one with relatives behind the “Iron Curtain” would ever get a clearance because they were seen as a sign of divided loyalties, or as a potential source of leverage from hostile governments.
“Close relatives abroad” -- especially in the Muslim world -- “are still seen as a source of potential pressure,” he said. “We can’t live with that model anymore.”
Allen said that the key was a new attitude on the part of the intelligence agencies. “Muslim Americans” including new immigrants “are as patriotic as anyone else. They see themselves as Americans first,” he said.
“Aftercare” for new recruits -- “to help them resist that kind of pressure” -- was also important, he added, but the essence was speed. “The longer we delay, the less we know about the Muslim world.”
Rodriguez said, “I cannot blame (those conducting) security (and background checks for new hires) for being very stringent and detailed about what they do. Foreign adversaries can dangle people in front of us -- we have to always be cognizant of that.”
But he adds, “If we are going to make strides, we have to take risks.”
Other than the security clearance process, Rodriguez said the major barriers to increasing diversity are competition from the private sector, and two attitudinal issues within minority communities.
“In a lot of cases, minorities don’t want to move too far from home. They are embedded in their communities and they don’t like to move away,” for instance to a job at agency headquarters or abroad, he explained.
Wayne Murphy, the FBI’s assistant director for intelligence, told the conference that it was anyway better to allow minority recruits with special language skills to continue living in their communities “where they are reinforcing their language skills everyday.”
Rodriguez said another barrier was the misperceptions about U.S. intelligence that had traction in minority communities. He called it “an unfair, obsolete perception of the agency (based on) … all the unfair, negative things said about the agency’s past.”