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Feb 17, 2006 | 01:21 GMT

4 mins read

The Risks of Hiring Infiltrators

After feminist Gloria Steinem went undercover as a Playboy bunny back in the 1960s, her expose on the New York Playboy Club led to improvements in working conditions for the club's "real" bunnies. Although Steinem's entry into the club's secret world ultimately served a lofty purpose, she nevertheless entered into its employ under false pretenses. She was an infiltrator. The infiltration of private companies, and even of militaries, however, can have much more ominous results. For example, Nidal Ayyad, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Kuwait of Palestinian parents, was hired by Allied Signal Inc. in Morristown, N.J., following his 1991 graduation from Rutgers University. Ayyad used his position at Allied Signal — where he primarily worked with chemicals used in pharmaceuticals and paints — to order powerful chemicals on company letterhead. These materials were later used in the construction of the bomb that was used in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Ayyad also used the company computer to author the letter that took credit for the bombing in the name of the Liberation Army Fifth Battalion. He was convicted in 1994 of conspiracy, explosives charges and assault. In October 2000, former U.S. Army Sgt. Ali Mohammed pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and murder in a case that the U.S. military said involved his collaboration with al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in a global conspiracy to kill Americans abroad. Despite being on the State Department terrorism watch list, Mohammed was able to obtain a visa and move to the United States, where he joined the military. Mohammed used the military training that he received as a member of an elite special forces unit to train al Qaeda operatives in urban and guerrilla fighting and surveillance evasion. Mohammed had also received instructions from top al Qaeda leaders on how to recruit U.S. citizens of Middle Eastern heritage into the jihadist organization. An infiltrator is someone who joins an organization specifically to get inside information, to cause the organization harm or to use training he obtains on the inside to harm others — all to further the infiltrator's own agenda. This is opposed to someone who is already in the organization and then is "turned" by a hostile group. Activists might use their position in a company to obtain information to conduct a smear campaign, or to sabotage its operations. Militants will sometimes join the military with the intent of using military training to train other members of the hostile group. As in the Ayyad case, they also will use their position in a company to obtain commercial-grade materials or equipment that is difficult for the average person to obtain. Infiltration also can occur by activists who, though perhaps working for a noble cause such as preventing cruelty to animals, nevertheless cause the organization harm. Members of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), a Philadelphia-based activist group (some of whose members are on trial in New Jersey on domestic terrorism charges) have infiltrated the Huntingdon Life Science (HLS) organization five times since 1989, producing evidence and video footage that has led to convictions for animal cruelty, fines by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and almost a complete shutdown of HLS's British operations by the British government. According to Senate testimony delivered in 1994 by a vice president of the multinational Chiron Corp., the SHAC USA Web site has included instructions on how to infiltrate targeted companies, including Chiron, by fraudulently posing as job applicants. The point here is not to pass judgment on the intent of those who infiltrate companies, but to suggest that those who do attempt to get hired for purposes other than to serve and collect a paycheck might not have such a hard time doing so — unless proper precautions are taken. Once an infiltrator gets inside an organization, he can cause serious damage. Measures, such as compartmentalizing access, can be taken internally to mitigate such damage. In the HLS cases, for example, the infiltrators were in a position to freely roam the facilities and videotape sensitive operations. Restricting access to the facilities could have prevented the infiltrators from penetrating many of those areas. The best way to prevent this damage is to conduct thorough background checks of job applicants who might be hired for sensitive positions, or who might be given access to sensitive facilities. These background checks are time-consuming and expensive, but the costs of not conducting them can be even higher.

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