[lg policy] Iran: America ’s spies and a language crisis

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jul 3 13:25:35 UTC 2009

America’s spies and a language crisis

By: Bernd Debusmann

– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

“There is a great deal about Iran that we do not know…The United
States lacks critical information needed for analysts to make many of
their judgments with confidence about Iran.” That was the verdict of a
Congressional committee on U.S. intelligence policy two years ago. How
valid it still is was highlighted by Iran’s June elections and their
turbulent aftermath. By most accounts, the huge margin of President
Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s victory, the equally huge demonstrations of
Iranians crying fraud, and their brutal repression all came as
surprises to U.S. intelligence and foreign policy experts.

The reasons for America’s problems of coming to grips with Iran are
manifold: a 30-year absence of diplomats on the ground, an opaque
political system difficult to penetrate, wishful thinking, a perennial
temptation to “mirror-image,” that is to expect others to think and
behave like yourself. Last but not least: an acute shortage of
Farsi-speaking analysts and agents.

The number of people in the sprawling U.S. intelligence community, 16
separate agencies with more than 100,000 employees, who speak Iran’s
language is classified, as is the number of fluent Arabic and Pashto
speakers. (The State Department says it has 22 foreign service
officers out of 6,500 who are fluent in Farsi.)

The problem is not new and it contributed to the notorious
misjudgments of the situation in Iran by the Central Intelligence
Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency in 1978, a few months
before the Islamic revolution that sent the Shah fleeing into exile.

Said the CIA: “Iran is not a revolutionary state or even
pre-revolutionary state.” Echoed the DIA: The Shah “is expected to
remain actively involved in power over the next 10 years.”

There have been no CIA or DIA predictions of how long Ahmedinejad will
stay in power but there have been public pledges to address the
language deficit.

Its overall scale was thrown into sharp focus by the government’s
disclosure, long after the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and
Washington, that it had a 123,000-hour backlog of taped message
traffic in Middle Eastern languages.

America’s intelligence czar, Dennis Blair, says that a “lack of
language-qualified personnel has been a perennial problem for the
Intelligence Community.”

Leon Panetta, President Barack Obama’s choice as CIA chief, has
repeatedly spoken of the need for officers who “read, speak and
understand foreign languages.”

President George W. Bush two years ago announced a National Security
Language Initiative to “dramatically increase” the number of Americans
learning, speaking, and teaching “critical need” foreign languages.
That was followed by a five-year Strategic Human Capital Plan that
pinpointed part of what is one of the biggest problems: “non-U.S.
citizens who cannot meet our security requirements.”


That phrase leaves out the huge pool of American citizens who are
native speakers of Farsi, Arabic and other languages deemed critical
for gaining a better understanding of  opaque countries like Iran or
penetrating al Qaeda and its affiliates.

The vetting process for a security clearance is almost as high a
barrier for them as for non-citizens. For decades, dual citizenship
and having close non-citizen family members were grounds for automatic
disqualification from jobs that required a security clearance.

That changed last October with a new directive that allows exceptions
to be granted on a case-by-case basis when there is a “compelling need
that is based upon specific national security

That requirement  is hard to meet for first-generation Americans who
have close relatives living in Middle Eastern countries. The
government fears they could be subject to blackmail or family

Added to this, there is “an underlying mistrust of Muslim Americans or
Arab Americans in the national security area,” according to Frederick
P. Hitz, a former inspector general of the CIA. In a recent book (Why
Spy? Espionage in an Age of Uncertainty), Hitz termed this mistrust
“short-sighted and a return to the attitude that enabled the United
States to intern Japanese Americans during World War II.”

While the intelligence agencies, in the words of  Dennis Blair,
“continue to wrestle with clearing people who are native speakers of
critical languages,”  the vetting process can take a year or more,
somewhat of a disincentive even for potential recruits brimming with
patriotic spirit.

The language deficit is so serious that some in the intelligence
community think addressing it requires an effort as sweeping as the
programs that were put into place after the Russians launched the
first earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik, in 1957 and the U.S. realized
how far behind it was in space technology.

Sputnik spurred a major push to get young Americans to study
mathematics, physics and Russian.

This is not likely to happen.

Given the time it takes to learn difficult languages, senior
intelligence officials say the immediate emphasis is on drawing
recruits from first-generation citizens.

It’s a work in progress and progress is slow. Which begs the question
whether America’s intelligence services are as omniscient and
omnipotent as Washington’s adversaries make them out to be.

Iran’s government saw the hand of the CIA behind the street protests
and violence that followed Ahmedinejad’s June 12 elections. Perhaps it
was. But a deep study of the Iran by one of America’s most respected
think tanks makes one wonder.

Commissioned by the U.S. Air Force and released by the RAND
Corporation a few weeks before the elections, the 230-page study said
America’s understanding of Iran’s complex political landscape was so
limited that attempts to foment internal unrest were likely to be

You can contact the author at Debusmann at Reuters.com

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