EL PASO, Texas — When Jose Rodriguez, a 30-year veteran undercover CIA officer, stepped into the spotlight this week — an experience he found uncomfortable — it was for a purpose: He's the CIA's poster boy in its drive to recruit more minorities.
Mr. Rodriguez runs the National Clandestine Service, which recruits human sources — "spies as they are popularly known — for U.S. intelligence. A Puerto Rican who joined the agency in 1976, he says he is the most senior minority official in U.S. intelligence.
"In the senior ranks," he said. "I'm the only minority within sight."
CIA spokesman George Little said 21 percent of all agency staff and 24 percent of new hires are minorities, but evidence from other officials suggests they tend to be concentrated among the less senior and support staff.
For instance, Mr. Rodriguez said that only 14 percent of the staff in his own elite clandestine service are minorities.
At a reception earlier this year for new CIA recruits, Mr. Rodriguez recounted, "some of them [new minority hires] came to talk to me. ... They were asking almost 'How did you do it?' as if there was some trick I could share with them. In many cases, they don't realize that they can do it on their own."
Mr. Rodriguez said human resources officials at the clandestine service, formerly known as the CIA Directorate of Operations, had been asking him "for a while" to get his undercover status revoked — "rolled back" in CIA parlance.
Now that it has been, he is able to appear in public for the first time. He willingly did that so he could help the agency's drive to recruit more minorities, especially first- and second-generation Americans.
"Diversity is a mission-critical objective," he said.
House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Texas Democrat, one of the organizers of the border security conference at which Mr. Rodriguez spoke publicly, said that diversity "is one of our natural strengths as a nation."
Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell told those at the conference that "our focus is to get a more diverse culture, particularly first-generation Americans, and particularly from those groups that are currently targeting this country."
The problem, Mr. McConnell explained, is that since the Cold War, U.S. intelligence "not through law or policy, but by habit, has adopted a position of screening out first-generation Americans.
"We're going to change those habits," he said.
But it may not be that simple.
Mr. Rodriguez said security and background investigations into people whose family are from foreign countries can be lengthy.
"That takes time — too long, in some cases," he said, noting that often results in talented recruits growing tired of waiting and abandoning the application process for a more lucrative private-sector post.