Intel agencies are desperate for Arabic speakers So why do they reject some of the best and brightest?
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon Jun 19 13:00:52 UTC 2006
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Smart, Skilled, Shut Out Intel agencies are desperate for Arabic speakers.
So why do they reject some of the best and brightest?
By Dan Ephron
June 26, 2006 issue - The job search was going better than he'd expected.
Daniel Kopp, a fluent Arabic speaker who had moved to Washington, D.C. in
hopes of working for one of the government's security services, had
already passed the first interview at the Department of Homeland Security.
The son of American Christian missionaries, Kopp grew up in Jerusalem,
went to high school with Palestinians and mastered the kind of nuanced,
throaty Arabic that most graduates of language institutes back home could
only envy. Now Kopp was sitting across the table from Wayne Parent,
director of current operations at DHS, who seemed to recognize the worth
of this fellow American with an insider's understanding of Arab society.
"We very much need people like you," Kopp quotes Parent as saying at the
interview. The operations chief told Kopp that in a meeting he'd just had
with the Department's batch of 84 new recruits, he had asked how many
Arabic speakers were in the room. Not one hand had gone up. Kopp, who is
28 and has a degree in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, left expecting
a quick job offer. When a month passed, he phoned Parent and heard a
different refrain: problems with the security-clearance system prevented
Kopp from being hired. (Parent did not respond to an interview request.)
So began an exasperating odyssey for Kopp, one that highlights a flaw in
the way linguists are recruited by agencies that lead the war on terror.
Over the next 14 months, he was courted by government bureaus desperate
for his skillsincluding the CIA, NSA and State Departmentonly to be turned
down over what clearance investigators apparently deemed a security red
flag: the fact that he spent long years overseas and has family abroad
(Kopp's parents still live in Jerusalem, as do his in-laws). Kopp's plight
is not unique. Lawyers and lawmakers who deal in the matter say that long
after 9/11, the security-clearance system is still stacked against some of
the best linguiststhose who learn their language natively. "The system
inhibits individuals who, on their own initiative, traveled to the region,
learned the language and want to contribute to the U.S. security effort,"
says Rebecca Givner-Forbes, an analyst at the Terrorism Research Center, a
for-profit, nonpartisan think tank in Arlington, Va.
Some extra caution is understandable. Agencies that trade in America's
most guarded secrets worry that applicants who have lived overseas might
have come under the sway of foreign groups. Relatives abroad, the fear is,
could become targets of blackmail schemes by hostile countries trying to
squeeze information from Americans. "We want to make sure we're bringing
in people with the right skills while also managing the risk," said a CIA
official, who could not be named discussing recruitment policy. The
problem might just be in the way the guidelines are applied. "Much of the
time, it seems completely arbitrary," says Sheldon Cohen, a Virginia
lawyer who petitions against clearance-board decisions. Sometimes foreign
ties spawn legitimate probing, he says. Other times, it leads to automatic
disqualification. One of Cohen's clients is an Iraqi Christian who fled
Saddam Hussein's regime 25 years ago and became a U.S. citizen. In 2003,
he took a private contracting job as an interpreter in Iraq and later
Guantnamo, getting a clearance to view secret documents and participate in
classified interrogations. But his clearance wasn't renewed last year. The
reason: he has a sister and a sister-in-law in Iraqinformation
investigators had known before.
Government officials involved in vetting applicants wouldn't comment on
specific cases but said all the security agencies had made headway in
enlisting Arabic speakers since September 11, and in recruiting
Arab-Americans. Only the State Department provided hard numbers. Its
spokeswoman said the full-time Arabic-speaking staff had grown since 2001
from 198 to 231. Officials from both Homeland Security and the CIA said
their agencies have new recruiting programs that target university
language students. But Arabic linguists say that's where the recruiters
fall down. While most U.S. universities teach modern standard Arabic, the
colloquial Arabic actually spoken across the Middle East is a different
vernacularand it varies from country to country. The result: schoolbook
linguists are ushered in while the really proficient speakers are kept
Kopp's experience underscores the point. He was eventually offered a State
Department job, investigated for more than a year, then told "foreign
influence" thwarted his clearance. While he waited, Kopp corresponded with
a few top security officials he'd met at public conferences. One was
William Nolte, who worked on shaping the CIA's foreign-language policies
after 9/11. In an e-mail exchange last year, Nolte (who did not respond to
NEWSWEEK queries) said he was discouraged that Kopp was still jobless.
"I'm retiring in August," Nolte wrote. "I can be more effective arguing
for reform from the outside." That was last August. Reform, it seems,
still needs to be translated into reality.
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