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Panetta to Arabs and Muslims: 'America Needs You'

The Arab American News, News Report, Khalil AlHajal Posted: Sep 21, 2009

DEARBORN, Mich. CIA Director Leon Panetta sought to reassure Arab Americans last Wednesday that the agency would no longer engage in questionable interrogation tactics, reports of which have fostered resentment toward the agency.

"I think it's pretty clear that we're not going to use anything that was used in the past," Panetta told reporters ahead of a speech he gave to about 150 Arab American, American Muslim and Chaldean American community leaders at an iftar , a Ramadan fast breaking dinner.

CIA Director Leon Panetta, R, during a Ramadan
fast breaking dinner in Dearborn, last Wednesday.

Panetta visited Dearborn in an effort to boost CIA recruitment efforts in Arab and Muslim communities, where the agency hopes to attract more applicants with Middle Eastern language and cultural expertise.

"I'm not reflecting on whether that was right or wrong," he said about reports of harsh interrogations and extraordinary rendition used in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks. "What was done then was done on the basis of people that I think were sincere. I don't question their patriotism. It was a time when this country was facing a horrific attack. And I understand the reasons they did it. But I think there were mistakes in judgement that were made. And hopefully we're not going to make the same mistakes."

He referred to his own family's immigrant background in appealing to the crowd during his speech.

"The U.S. is a land of immigrants," he said. "I'm the son of Italian immigrants. I know what the immigrant legacy in this country is all about... The United States is strong because it is a nation of nations. Because it draws on the strengths of people from every part of the world."

He told reporters that in speaking with Arab Americans and American Muslims about recruitment, a major concern that came across was security clearance obstacles for many who travel and communicate overseas.

"We have to look at that process," he said, "to make sure that there aren't any barriers that prevent our ability to attract good qualified people from that community into the CIA."

Panetta greets leaders
CIA Director Leon Panetta greets
community leaders.

Panetta touted President Barack Obama's efforts to reach out to Muslims and Arabs, citing his June speech in Cairo and a White House iftar event held earlier this month, and said Obama has shown a clear shift away from past inflammatory measures taken in the name of homeland security.

"I think President Obama has indicated that this is a new administration," he said, "and when he issued his executive orders with regard to torture and interrogation, I think he made clear that we're going to operate in accordance with the values of this country...

"To the Muslim community and the Arab community, I strongly believe that they are part of the American family. I want them to know that, as a result, I need them to be part of the effort of the CIA in order to protect the country that has given all of our immigrant families the opportunity that is so important to their children."

He said he hopes to increase diversity among CIA ranks, with a goal of raising the number of minority and ethnic employees from about 20 to 30 percent.

"The CIA has to reflect the face of the nation that we protect and it has to reflect the face of the world that we are involved with," he said.

Panetta was appointed CIA Director by Obama in February and has battled Attorney General Eric Holder over the release of interrogation records and Justice Department investigations of agency officials.

Over the past several years, the CIA has sponsored countless Arab American annual functions, including fundraising events for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Arab American and Chaldean Council, the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce and several other Middle Eastern organizations and festivals, spending tens of thousands on booths, banners and advertising. The agency has also advertised extensively in local Middle East-oriented newspapers and broadcast programs.

CIA spokespeople have said the number of job applications coming out of the Detroit area has risen significantly since the effort began.

A large portion of Panetta's speech Wednesday was dedicated to describing the different divisions and duties of the CIA.

"That job, frankly, is the work of all Americans," Panetta said. "That's why I look to welcoming more Arab Americans, Chaldean Americans, and Muslim Americans to the CIA's mission. I need you. The nation needs you."
presenting award

The Congress of Arab American
Organizations presents CIA 
Program Director for Middle East
outreach Zahra Roberts with
an award Wednesday.

Osama Siblani, spokesperson for the Congress of Arab American Organizations (CAAO) and publisher of The Arab American News, said community leaders appreciate the efforts of the CIA in building bridges, and presented an award to CIA Program Manager for Middle East Outreach Zahra Roberts.

But he said Arab Americans have suffered since 9/11.

"We are ready to serve our country," he said, "but it's time we were treated like Americans."

On Tuesday, an iftar sponsored by the U.S. State Department and hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took place in Washington, while Dearborn's Mayor Jack O'Reilly hosted his own Ramadan gathering here. While the CIA held its iftar event Wednesday, Dearborn Heights Mayor Dan Paletko hosted an iftar dinner for the Muslim community in his city.

Siblani said in a press release issued by CAAO that the events help heal wounds of the past.

"Appropriate recognition of the religion of Islam and the important contributions it and its followers make to our world helps mitigate the devastating effects official and unofficial Islamophobia have on followers of the faith," he said.

"Law abiding Arab Americans and American Muslims are always ready and willing to support homeland security, intelligence agencies and law enforcement in ensuring the absolute security of America and of all the world.

"Mindful of the aberrant activities that have emerged in the performance of such duties, however, we also remind our hosts that we stand opposed to such medieval practices as secret rendition, torture and arrest and detention without cause."

Photos: Nafeh AbuNab/American Elite Studios

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