September 15, 2002
Intelligence agencies struggle to meet language needs
By Toby Eckert
Copley News Serviced
WASHINGTON -- Before the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, one of the plotters was captured on tape discussing how to make explosives. But he spoke in Arabic, and the FBI didn't translate the phone conversation until after the explosion.
On Sept. 10, 2001, the National Security Agency intercepted two Arabic messages that warned ""The match is about to begin'' and ""Tomorrow is zero hour.'' Again, the messages went untranslated until after tragedy struck: the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The lapses highlighted a chronic shortage of linguists and translators that has plagued U.S. intelligence agencies for years. The FBI, CIA and NSA say they have made strides toward closing the gap since Sept. 11.
Key members of Congress say the problem is still glaring, hampering the agencies' ability to monitor and infiltrate terrorist groups.
""This is a critical area, an area where we are very deficient,'' said Rep. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., chairman of the House Intelligence subcommittee on terrorism and homeland security.
""The number of CIA operations officers -- those who recruit spies -- who are adequately trained in foreign language, any foreign language, is ebarrassingly low,'' he said. ""The number trained in languages spoken by terrorists is even lower. And CIA's ability, through cleared linguists, to exploit materials captured from terrorists in anything approaching real time is slim to none.''
""The impression I have is that it's improving slowly,'' added Rep. Jane Harman of Redondo Beach, the top Democrat on the subcommittee. ""There's a huge new focus on upgrading human intelligence and it is logical the language piece has to be there. I think there is no dissent about the urgency of doing it.''
A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged a continued shortage.
""Do the CIA and the intelligence community have all the linguists they need in every language? No,'' the official said.
A report on intelligence shortcomings by the subcommittee, declassified sections of which were released in July, described language deficiencies as a common thread that hampered counter-terrorism capabilities at the FBI, CIA and NSA before Sept. 11.
It cited a January 2002 report by congressional investigators that ""reported backlogs of thousand of un-reviewed and untranslated materials'' at the FBI. The linguist shortage at the NSA ""actually increased slightly'' after the Sept. 11 attacks ""and was well below additional requirements identified since 9-11.'' At the CIA, less than one-third of case officers in training had any language expertise, the subcommitee said.
After the attacks, all three agencies reported engaging in recruitment drives for people skilled in Arabic, Asian languages and more obscure tongues used in Afghanistan and other terrorist breeding grounds: Pashto, Dari, Farsi, Urdu. The efforts included reaching out to colleges and universities, providing incentive pay for skilled linguists and bringing back retirees.
""The response has been excellent and we have recently hired a number of skilled linguists in a number of different languages,'' said FBI spokesman Steven Berry, though he declined to discuss numbers or specific languages.
Some critics question whether the efforts have been adequate or conducted with enough urgency.
Geoff Porter, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Trinity College in Connecticut, said he responded to the FBI's call for translators just after the attacks. He was surprised to be tested only in Modern Standard Arabic and not any of the myriad dialects used in everyday conversation.
""FBI applicants were being tested for a type of language skill that may be useful for open-source intelligence -- monitoring media broadcasts, reading Internet sites and the like -- but is not very useful for monitoring conversations,'' Porter said.
Harman said she has been approached at forums in her Los Angeles-area district by Arab-Americans who want to work with the intelligence agencies ""and they aren't being hired.''
""That, it seems to me, is very counter-productive,'' she said.
Intelligence and language experts say it could take years for the government to meet its need for linguists and translators. Partly, that is because few Americans study Middle Eastern and Asian languages, and they typically take years to master.
""I think the gap is being closed. But it takes time,'' said Loch Johnson, a political science professor at the University of Georgia who has authored several books on U.S. intelligence agencies.
Former CIA director James Woolsey agreed with Harman's assessment that the agencies need to recruit more native speakers.
""This is a nation of immigrants. Both as potential intelligence officers and potential teachers we have a lot of people in the United States that can do that work,'' he said.
Others are more pessimistic, noting that the explosive growth of computers, cellular phones and other communications technology worldwide has led to an avalanche of intercepted intelligence in many languages. An FBI official told the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, that new technology is expected to increase the volume of language work at the agency by as much as 30 percent each year.
""I think the task exceeds the capacity of these organizations,'' said Timothy J. Lomperis, a former military intelligence officer who teaches political science at St. Louis University. ""There aren't enough Americans trained in Arab-language specialties or Pashto or Farsi who can exploit all of this information.''
Colleges and universities have reported increases in enrollment in Arabic and Asian language programs since the Sept. 11 attacks.
""The government (need) is definitely driving those languages,'' said Walter Bacak, executive director of the American Translators Association.
The National Security Education Program, which offers grants for the study of non-Western European languages and cultures critical to national security, reported a 50 percent increase in undergraduate applications this year and a 33 percent jump in graduate applications.
For the first time, the Middle East was the top region proposed for study, accounting for one-quarter of all applications. Officials are cautiously optimistic about the numbers.
""We're certainly pleased,'' said program Director Robert O. Slater, but ""one year does not a trend make.''