Intelligence Chief Hopes to Speed Staffing Checks Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell will release recommendations to streamline intelligence agencies' background checks. The FBI is having particular problems: It now takes almost twice as long to identify and hire qualified analysts as it did last year.
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Intelligence Chief Hopes to Speed Staffing Checks

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Intelligence Chief Hopes to Speed Staffing Checks

Intelligence Chief Hopes to Speed Staffing Checks

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell is getting ready to release recommendations on streamlining the way intelligence agencies do background checks. The FBI in particular is having problems with this. It is taking almost twice as long today to identify and hire qualified analysts as it did last year.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports on some of the changes under consideration.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Two months ago, the director of National Intelligence launched what he called a 100-day plan to come up with recommendations on how to make the intelligence community more efficient.

One of the areas that needed work was the way the agencies run background checks. Bruce Reidel is a 30-year veteran of the CIA and now a scholar at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. BRUCE REIDEL (Scholar, Brookings Institution): Right now, the background investigation process often takes 200 or 300 days. An investigation process that is that lengthy is going to dissuade an awful lot of bright, young people from entering the work force of the FBI or other parts of the intelligence community.

TEMPLE-RASTON: With that in mind, McConnell is looking at ways to speed up background checks. NPR has learned he's considering a type of risk analysis to move valued candidates, such as native language speakers, through the pipeline faster.

The FBI would gather information through data mining, financial and other data records. If no red flags appear, they would hire the applicant. Then, there would be a review a year down the road.

Former CIA officer and now author Robert Baer says this kind of data mining is risky.

Mr. ROBERT BAER (Former CIA Officer): You get in the credit reports, you look at telephone records - any digital data - and you hope that you find that, you know, I don't know, a call to Moscow or North Korea or some bizarre place like that. You could eliminate somebody or continue the investigation. The problem is that, you know, if you'd look back at the spy cases from the '90s, if you'd use the same risk assessment, they probably wouldn't have caught the major spies like Hanssen and Ames.

TEMPLE-RASTON: He's talking about the CIA's Aldrich Ames and the FBI's Robert Hanssen, who were discovered spying for the Soviet Union. They are the cautionary tale that casts a pall over any background check reform. Brookings' Reidel says there'll always be a risk.

Mr. BAER: People like Admiral McConnell have to make a decision what risk is that they're willing to take - the risk of one or two penetrations by hostile intelligence services versus the risk of not having the human resources with the language skills with the cultural skills that will make it able for our intelligence services and law enforcement agencies to win the war against al-Qaida?

TEMPLE-RASTON: The DNI is mowing a new process because of a Justice Department report that came out last month. It found that the FBI hadn't hired enough intelligence analysts. The report said the glacial pace of background checks is partly to blame.

Jeff Belkin is the acting assistant director of the FBI's Security Office. He says the agency is facing challenges.

Mr. JEFF BELKIN (Acting Assistant Director, FBI Security Office): People would always like to be able to apply one day and come to work in the next, but that's an ideal that's probably unlikely to be realized. We're always going to strive to shorten the processing times and be more effective at what we are trying to accomplish so that at the end of the day, we're getting the result we want, which is simply trustworthy employees.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Less than 20 percent of the people who apply for jobs at the FBI actually make it through the process. It's a tiny number, when you consider the FBI is desperate to beef up its ranks. The director of national intelligence report is due in early July.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Washington.

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