The CIA Comes Calling for Arab-American Help

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Carlos Osorio / AP

CIA Director Leon Panetta, right, meets with Imam Husham al-Husainy at the Bint Jebail Cultural Center in Dearborn, Mich.

Leon Panetta knew it was going to be a hard sale, and so the CIA director dished out some serious hard sell as he tried to drum up support for the agency from Arab Americans in the most Arab city in the country. On Wednesday, the CIA invited 150 community leaders in Dearborn, Mich., to a lavish iftar, the traditional evening feast at the end of each day's fasting during the month of Ramadan. The CIA and the FBI have made strenuous efforts to sign up Arab Americans in recent years, but the suspicions and recriminations since 9/11 have not made it easy. Panetta's appearance in Dearborn is the highest-profile recruiting effort to date.

The CIA director delivered a stirring speech appealing to the audience's sense of patriotism. "Your nation needs you," he said. "It needs your ingenuity, it needs your wisdom, it needs the skills of your communities to help protect the way of life that all of us hold dear." Faced with multiple challenges in the Middle East, Panetta said, the agency desperately needs people who speak Arabic and understand the culture. Besides, they would help bring much needed diversity to the CIA. "We have to reflect the face of this nation," he said.

Many in the audience, and in the larger Arab American community, gave Panetta credit for audacity. Arab Americans make up more than 30% of Dearborn's 100,000 residents, and few CIA directors have visited here, much less sought to recruit. "If you had told me some years ago that the boss of the CIA would come here and ask for our help, I would not have believed it," said Baha Saad, a local restaurateur. "To do that takes some balls."

Panetta's message, however, was greeted with skepticism. Speaking after Panetta, Osama Siblani, spokesman for the Congress of Arab American Organizations, asked the CIA director to take a message to President Obama: "It is time we were treated like Americans."

Siblani was referring to the profiling of many Arab Americans by intelligence, law-enforcement and homeland-security agencies. Other skeptics expressed anger with U.S. policies in the Middle East, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the treatment of Arab and Muslim detainees by CIA interrogators. For these reasons, "there is a big gap between the U.S. government and the Arab community," said Imam Hassan Qazwini, head of Dearborn's largest mosque. "And that gap will not be bridged by formalities like iftar banquets.

Many first-generation Arab Americans regard intelligence work as a deeply dishonorable profession. After all, most of them fled to the U.S. from countries where intelligence agencies, or mukhabarat in Arabic, are instruments of repression, used by unpopular regimes to brutally suppress dissent. And the CIA's reputation is doubly dubious: it is tainted by association with many Arab mukhabarat, and has a history of interfering (often ham-fistedly) in Middle Eastern politics.

Younger and second-generation Arab Americans may not be so reflexively opposed to intelligence work, but few would be willing to risk ostracism by their elders. "If I even hinted to my father that I was considering becoming a spy, he would disown me," said one young man at the dinner, who asked not to be named. "He would be ashamed to tell his friends that his son was working for the CIA."