Staffing the Homeland
The first day of 4700, the year of the Ram, came and went without great fanfare for most Americans. But if you happen to be one of the 175,000 readers of AsianWeek newspaper you may have stumbled upon the tastefully designed half-page ad wishing you "Happy Chinese New Year" from your friends at the Central Intelligence Agency.
Since when did they care? After a period of scaled-back operations during the post-Cold War '90s, the CIA landed congressional funding to step up recruiting in 1997. The "war on terror" has added a new sense of urgency to the agency's hiring. Recruiters are eager to bring in more tech-savvy personnel, more foreign language speakers, and more "diversity" hires.
"We have special ad campaigns that are designed for different ethnic groups," says CIA spokesman Tom Crispell. "We have a Chinese American campaign that we've kicked off to correspond with the Chinese New Year, a Hispanic campaign, an Arab American one."
In the age of Homeland Security, many federal agencies are looking to "diversify" their workforce. You may have heard the Border Patrol appeal on your Clear Channel hip-hop station or the U.S. Navy plug on your Spanish-language banda station. Colin Powell is mugging for the State Department in Hispanic Business magazine. The National Security Agency (NSA) is stumping at the NAACP National Convention. The Defense Intelligence Agency and the Coast Guard are amassing electronic real estate at HireDiversity.com. And the FBI is hunting down recruits in publications like Turkish Times, Korean Times, Gujarat Times, Al Atrana International, Sher-e-Punjab, and Sing Tao.
Anyone with a rudimentary background in American history might wonder at the motives behind this targeted government outreach. The NSA's College Relations Manager Ken Acosta explains his agency's "diversity" and foreign language needs like this: "Our workforce must anticipate and respond to the actions of our extremely diverse targets. Therefore, we rely on the diversity of our workforce to envision all the possibilities, to conceive of a world very different from the one we live in. Diversity is critical to the success of our missions."
In other words, the color-recruiting effort is more than a magnanimous salute to affirmative action. What's implied in Acosta's "diversity" pitch is that U.S. intelligence and security agencies are also hoping to people the ranks with some cross-cultural emissaries who might serve as a buffer between the gray-suited old guard and the unknown "other."
In George W. Bush's America, cultural buffering is no small task. This is the administration that has screened thousands of Iraqi Americans in places like Dearborn, Michigan, in hopes of uncovering high-level military secrets. It's the administration that offers "snitch visas" in exchange for information about the terrorist next door. It's the administration that plans -- through "special registration" -- to regulate the comings and goings of Americans from 25 enemy countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Twenty months into the "war on terror," the "with us or against us" message has seeped into the fabric of America. Appeals for patriots to step forward, like the Chinese New Year ad, are brilliantly cloaked in the language of civil rights, equal opportunity, and cultural uplift.
The agency knows whom it wants, and according to Crispell at the CIA, applicants are lining up. "After 9/11, we were getting thousands of applications online a week -- and we continue to get hundreds a day -- but a very small percentage are actually qualified. We have more requests from universities and colleges to come recruit on campus than we have capacity of handling. So, one of the primary requirements in choosing where to recruit is the student population has to be a diverse one."
A former Justice Department attorney of color believes the administration is "very cynically and very deliberately using people of color where it's convenient and expedient." She explains: "It gives the administration a certain level of cover, because they can send out people who look like the community while at the same time doing damage to that community. It's really smart. They're working on two fronts."
Dangers of "Diversifying"
The feds are coming after the same communities with both the carrot (employment) and the stick (interrogation). The Central Intelligence folks are offering up cushy, equal-opportunity jobs -- like "Clinical Psychologist, fluent in Arabic" or the Clandestine Service Trainee Program, "the gateway to a unique overseas experience." Meanwhile, in a policy move reminiscent of the Japanese internment, federal immigration officials are instructing male immigrants from targeted communities to register their names at their local immigration office. And the FBI has conducted more than 5,000 "voluntary" interviews with -- and detained about 20 -- Iraqi Americans since the U.S. and the U.K. launched the war on Iraq.
In effect, carrot-and-stick campaigns have targeted communities in areas of the country with large populations of Arab and Muslim Americans. Last year FBI recruiters hit up a career fair at a New Jersey mosque, the Islamic Center of Passaic County -- in the same community where several of the September 11 hijackers had rented an apartment prior to the attacks and where a good portion of the individuals from the FBI's 9/11 roundups were housed. It's possible the mosque's invitation was a response to the kind of patriotic pressure felt in many Muslim communities after 9/11. Whatever the impetus, Magdy Mahmoud, director of New Jersey's Council on American-Islamic Relations says, "The event was not well attended and many people criticized the idea, so the mosque decided not to do it again in the future." Overall, Mahmoud says, the community is split on the issue. "Some people think its good to have representation in law enforcement. Other people say law enforcement is approaching people in an illegal and intimidating way. I think the latter opinion is gaining ground."
Arnoldo Garcia, who heads immigration law enforcement oversight at the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, foresees a worst-case scenario for people of color who join the ranks. "My experience with Border Patrol agents who are of color is they tend to be worse than their white counterparts because they always have to prove themselves. When you give someone a badge, they become super-white," he says.
Certainly, there's no guarantee that Latino border agents will be more compassionate to Mexican border crossers or that Pakistani FBI agents will be less prone to needlessly meddle in the affairs of Muslim Americans under surveillance. But American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee spokesman Hussein Ibish does not concern himself with the dangers of "diversity." "I don't see how people of color joining these agencies can make it worse. But I don't think I would advise my nearest and dearest to take a position in the intelligence community."
Another Justice Department attorney who left his post (and wishes to remain anonymous) says it was a toss-up. "I wasn't happy about working for John Ashcroft, but the benefits of my being there to help victims of civil rights violations outweighed the costs. Part of why I left was I didn't want to be part of an institution that was promoting these policies." Community leaders nationwide have challenged the immigrant-targeted recruiting campaign, but very few ethnic media outlets, to date, have turned away the ads on moral grounds.
Ethics of Ethnic-Media Targeting
Targeted recruiting poses a critical dilemma for executives at ethnic news organizations. Advertising departments are charged with keeping the organizations afloat. It's difficult to turn down clients with the economy in a tailspin. At the same time, editorial boards must decide whether it's in the best interests of their organizations to risk the tacit affirmation they seemingly give by running recruitment ads.
"A publisher risks losing his credibility by running overt ads, because people might think we were in cahoots with [intelligence agencies]. Readers will say, 'If I subscribe, they probably have my address and telephone number.' They might pull their subscriptions because they are concerned about privacy," says PakNews editor Asim Mughal. Mughal says PakNews, which averages 1 million hits daily and skyrocketed to 2.9 million after 9/11, has not been approached by any agencies that are recruiting but his site was linked to the government's immigration information site during "special registration."
Many publications are driven by financial pressures and rely on ad revenue to survive. Neela Banerjee, who was editor-in-chief at AsianWeek at the time the Chinese New Year ad ran, says, "The CIA and the Army are the ones that are throwing around the most money for ads. There's talk of having the U.S. Army be the top sponsor for the Asian Pacific American Heritage month special edition of the paper."
Bay Area hip-hop activist and radio personality Davey D speculates that people see employment sound bites as a matter of equity. "If these government agencies didn't reach out and try to attract people of color via ads on the mediums we tend to listen to, a lot of us would be upset. If we had an all-white Border Patrol, INS, CIA, etc., everyone would be asking how come these agencies we pay taxes for did not reach into communities of color and offer the opportunity?"
Sandy Close, who founded the New California Media network and has her finger on the pulse of hundreds of print, broadcast, and online ethnic media organizations, subscribes to Davey D's line of thinking. Close says, "I would not only provide access to those ads, but would actively solicit them for our media network. I agree with Al Sharpton and others that the disparities in advertising in mainstream vs. ethnic media markets amount to an affirmative action issue. This issue is not without ironies, of course. Black media depend on tobacco and alcohol advertising, as do a lot of Hispanic media." On the content side, Close adds, "We would also be working to publicize abuses of civil liberties by these agencies within ethnic communities."
Filipinas magazine editor Vivian Zalvidea Araullo agrees on the equity question. "They're also trying to do recruiting in the mainstream. So I don't care if they use the same method in the ethnic community. We can't assume to read between the lines." But Araullo's percolating ambivalence about the agencies' policies comes through: "If it were a racist ad, that would be a totally different issue. I'm very much against TIPs and state-sponsored spying."
Filipinas makes its advertising decisions independent of its editorial staff, which is standard practice at many news organizations. At print pubs, the employees in layout generally organize paid ads according to section and size. Whether they are conscientious or inadvertent, odd juxtapositions often result. The CIA's Chinese New Year ad in AsianWeek ran below an article on legal clinics for Bangladeshi males -- one of the groups singled out for "special registration." With a loosely regulated market on ad space and air time, these things happen. So where should news executives draw the line?
"We try to avoid anything that can become controversial," says Ali Khan, advertising department spokesman at India Abroad, which recently ran an FBI recruiting ad. "We don't accept cigarette ads."
At AsianWeek, Banerjee recalls one occasion when her editorial and advertising staff bumped heads. "A couple of years ago our advertising director was running a lot of ads for casinos. Gambling is a problem in the Asian American community, and they were specifically targeting that population. We were running gambling addiction PSAs and we were also running casino ads." Upper management "took the matter under consideration," leaving the conflict unresolved. Ultimately, for a debate to get anywhere, the controversy itself must be deemed worthy of resolving.
Running government job ads is not inherently controversial if you're talking about, say, Post Office jobs. But intelligence work is quintessentially political. Many distinguished historians have implicated the CIA in the assassinations of Patrice Lumumba and Salvador Allende. J. Edgar Hoover himself once said that the purpose of the FBI's counterintelligence program was to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralize" groups like the American Indian Movement, the Black Panthers, the NAACP, the National Lawyer's Guild, and the American Friends Service Committee and prominent civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez. If targeting is part of the intelligence legacy, then it's not unreasonable to entertain a debate about the pros and cons of "diversity" hires entering the fold. These government institutions have a history of overextending themselves; adding color to the mix does not undo this dynamic.
Some say people of color might not go after punitive homeland industry jobs if there were steady, well-paying, hazard-free alternatives being offered in other sectors. "After being underemployed or not employed at all with a stack of bills and a couple of mouths to feed, any job looks good to most folks," Davey D says. "Very few are thinking about the politics behind it. The main concern is: 'Is it a steady job and will it help me pay bills and eat and not get evicted?'"
But Asian Week columnist Emil Guillermo rejects the whole "advertising vs. editorial" framing of the dilemma. "The best approach," he says, "would be to allow the business side of the ethnic media to be the best it can be. And then let the editorial side be as dogged in pursuing the truth with skeptical, even critical, articles on the CIA, government policy, and the war effort. That's called balance."
Banerjee sees the situation as far more perilous, and has decided -- AsianWeek management has also asked her -- to resign because of the political direction the paper is taking. "I think recruiting by agencies like the CIA in ethnic communities is scary and problematic, because even though there might be some good they could do, the reasons behind it are to have spies in the community."
As she sees it, AsianWeek is sidestepping the very notion of controversy. "I'm used to the back and forth that goes on here [at AsianWeek]. Because our community is so diverse, contradiction was always okay. But they're trying to take a more moderate-to-conservative stance now. Special registration affects South Asians, Muslims, and North Koreans, but it's difficult for more traditional people in our community to see how the CIA is targeting our communities as a whole. I think it's a sign of the times."
Gabrielle Banks is ColorLines' senior writer.