Need to learn languages

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Nov 5 13:08:01 UTC 2003

New York Times, November 5, 2003


C.I.A. Needs to Learn Arabic, House Committee Leader Says


       WASHINGTON, Nov. 4 The Republican chairman of the House
Intelligence Committee said Tuesday that prewar American intelligence
about Iraq had been hampered by significant shortcomings, including what
he called the C.I.A.'s unsatisfactory response to Congressional directives
to improve its foreign language capacity. The chairman, Representative
Porter Goss of Florida, has been a prominent champion of the intelligence
agencies, so his criticisms were particularly notable.

They went beyond those that he and his Democratic counterpart,
Representative Jane Harman of California, made in late September in a
private letter to George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence,
and they opened a new chapter in the debate over who or what was
responsible for intelligence failures regarding Iraq. "Our capabilities
were not what they should have been," Mr. Goss said in an hourlong
interview. He said there had been "way too many gaps" in American
intelligence gathering, including information about Iraq's conventional
military power and any illicit weapons programs.

Congressional officials have long expressed concern that intelligence
agencies do not have nearly enough officers who speak Arabic, Persian or
Pashto, languages needed to gain access to information in Arab nations,
Iran and Afghanistan. In the interview, Mr. Goss offered a careful defense
of the Bush administration's use of the prewar information, taking issue
with Democrats who have said the administration exaggerated the threat
posed by Iraq. He said he believed that the administration's warnings
about Iraq's illicit weapons program had been prudent, even though
American investigators in Iraq have not turned up any chemical or
biological weapons or prohibited weapons materials. In general, he said,
intelligence agencies "did the best they could with what they had" in
concluding that Iraq had such weapons in its arsenal.

But Mr. Goss said a review under way by his committee had turned up what
he called fundamental shortcomings in intelligence gathering about Iraq
before the war, particularly about the "plans and intentions" of Iraqi
decision makers. He would not be more specific about the weaknesses, but
left little doubt that his main focus of concern was in human

Mr. Goss said a report being drafted by his committee would focus in part
on "why these capabilities weren't employed or otherwise brought to bear,
or why they weren't harvested." He blamed what he called a disinvestment
during the 1990's, a period in which the classified intelligence budget is
believed to have declined under President Clinton, for many of the
problems. But he also said the C.I.A.'s response to calls for more
extensive language skills on the part of its officers, before this year's
war in Iraq and since, had been "belated and insufficient."

In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Ms. Harman, the top Democrat on the
committee, said she agreed that intelligence resources on Iraq, and human
intelligence capacity in general, had been inadequate. But she said she
believed that intelligence agencies and the administration were also to
blame, for not acknowledging that their sources of information were far
from sufficient and relied heavily on uncorroborated accounts from Iraqi
defectors. "Analysts ought to know when their sources are inadequate," she

Among Republicans on Capitol Hill, Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, Senate
Intelligence Committee chairman, has sought most directly to blame
intelligence agencies for incorrectly gauging the threat posed by Iraq, in
particular by asserting that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and
was reconstituting its nuclear program, something that American
investigators in Iraq have not been able to substantiate. But as the
Senate committee moves forward on its own review, Senator Roberts's
Democratic counterpart, Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, has been
seeking to shift attention to the question of how the administration used
that intelligence to bolster its even darker public assertions.

On the issue of language training for intelligence officers, a senior
Republican Congressional official said a significant amount of money
allocated by Congress for the foreign language training of C.I.A.
officers, particularly in Arabic, Persian and Pashto, had been redirected
by the agency for other purposes during the last fiscal year. An agency
official who spoke on condition of anonymity said he understood that some
of the money had been spent on computer-driven document translation rather
than on training for individual officers.

"Our view is that we need both," the official said, but he defended the
computerized capacity as one that would prove useful, for example, in
translating the reams of Arabic-language documents being accumulated by
the American investigators in Iraq who are working under David Kay, a
special adviser to Mr. Tenet. "We've been working on language capability
for a number of years," said the C.I.A. official, who added that the
agency had increased hiring bonuses and other inducements.

But Mr. Goss was sharply critical, saying the agency sometimes seemed
hamstrung by uncertainty over which languages it might need most in the
future, when "the answer is we need them all."

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