The Magazine

English Only Spoken Here

There's a desperate shortage of foreign language speakers at our intelligence agencies. Not that they're doing anything about it.

Dec 3, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 12 • By CLAIRE BERLINSKI
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A RUMOR HAS BEEN CIRCULATING in intelligence circles that communications intercepted prior to September 11 referred in Arabic to a "Christmas gift" for the United States. What no one listening to these messages realized was that the same expression can mean "an unpleasant exploding surprise."

This anecdote may or may not be true. But the lack of trained linguists in our intelligence services is no rumor. Directly after the September 11 attack, FBI Director Robert Mueller issued an urgent appeal for Arabic and Farsi translators, posting a toll-free number for applicants on the FBI's website. But this is too little, too late: A critical shortage of linguists with security clearances has crippled American intelligence efforts for decades, and will take decades to remedy fully.

One intelligence failure after another has been linked to the lack of translators and interpreters in the U.S. intelligence community. Following the 1990 murder of Rabbi Meir Kahane in Manhattan, the FBI confiscated handwritten materials in Arabic from the assassin's apartment. No one translated them. The FBI also seized Arabic videotapes and bomb-making manuals from Ahmad Ajaj, a Palestinian serving time in federal prison for passport fraud. No one translated them. Prison officials made tapes of Ajaj as he described bomb-making techniques over the phone. No one translated them. After the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, all of these materials were at last reviewed. They pointed clearly to the impending attack.

An inability to translate evidence impeded the investigation of the bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. The lack of translators hampered the investigation of the October 1999 downing off Nantucket of EgyptAir Flight 990. Policymakers were not warned of impending nuclear detonations in India and Pakistan, intelligence sources say, not because the evidence was unavailable, but because analysts could not understand it. According to a recent House Intelligence Committee study, countless data are never analyzed by the NSA and CIA because too few analysts possess language skills: "Written materials can sit for months, and sometimes years, before a linguist with proper security clearances and skills can begin a translation," the authors note. A mountain of similar testimony has been presented before the House and Senate intelligence oversight committees in the past decades; nothing has been done.

The Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center in Fort Detrick, Maryland, has no cleared linguists on its staff: The center is charged with tracking foreign medical capabilities, infectious diseases, and biomedical subjects of military importance. Journalists have been told that the government suspects domestic extremists of mailing anthrax to members of Congress and American news organizations. This is reminiscent of the joke in which a man looks for his missing wallet underneath a street lamp, because that's where the light is.

CIA sources with knowledge of the agency's current language capabilities say that there are perhaps four or five truly competent Arabic speakers in the entire Central Intelligence Agency. There is, according to one recently retired CIA official, only one speaker of Farsi at the agency with an intimate knowledge of the language. The Farsi expert enjoys a "fluent and melodious" command of the language; he is a connoisseur of Persian lyric poetry. Unfortunately, he is also "about 9,000 years old now."

True, there are analysts in the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence who read some Arabic, but the language they read is classical Arabic, not colloquial, and they can speak neither. Asked to confirm this assessment, another officer familiar with the agency's language capabilities snorts: "That's generous. Most of the analysts don't know squat about Arabic." Says another senior agency official: "There's probably not a single analyst in the DI who's totally proficient in modern, colloquial, spoken Arabic. There's one guy who reads Uzbek, but he doesn't speak it."

Case officers who study Arabic in the United States are often sent for a single overseas tour (usually two to three years), then rotated elsewhere, where their language abilities atrophy. "There were no officers in Germany in the 1990s handling the Middle Eastern terrorism problem," says an official. Why not? "They couldn't speak Arabic."