A Welcome Change

The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus reports:

Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell has taken steps to make it easier for U.S. intelligence agencies to recruit first-generation Americans with foreign relatives.

The story, first broken by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, is likely to be overlooked given the focus on the campaign and on the financial markets, and might seem an obscure policy change given the high-profile national security challenges that our intelligence professionals and military personnel confront every day.

In fact, it is a crucial step toward leveraging our unique strengths as a nation. America’s openness is often seen as a vulnerability, but it should be seen instead as a sign of our vitality. The desire of millions of non-Americans to come to the United States and try to make a better life for their families remains strong, despite our recent troubles. To deny first-generation Americans the opportunities enjoyed by other Americans on the dubious grounds that they pose a unique security risk makes no more sense than any other form of blanket profiling. After all, we didn’t kick Lutherans of mixed Danish-Polish and German descent out of the FBI after Robert Hansen’s treason was discovered.

First-generation Americans, or Americans with other extensive foreign contacts (spouses, close friends, study abroad), are likely to have native or near-native proficiency in languages other than English that are in desperately short supply in our intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The hurdles for these citizens were never insurmountable; many ultimately do obtain needed security clearances. In his award-winning book The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright profiled one of them: Ali Soufan, a Lebanese-American FBI agent, the only Arabic speaker in the New York office at the time of the USS Cole bombing, and one of only eight Arabic speakers in the entire agency.

But notwithstanding men like Soufan, the laborious and time-consuming process associated with obtaining a security clearance, and the prevailing presumption against such persons, doubtless discourages many well-intentioned people from even trying to obtain a job in law enforcement or intelligence. Here’s hoping that this change helps to open the doors to qualified men and women who are every bit as patriotic as Americans whose families have been here for generations.