[lg policy] US spy agencies 'struggle with post-9/11 languages'

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Wed Sep 21 14:20:41 UTC 2011

US spy agencies 'struggle with post-9/11 languages'

Despite intense focus on Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East in
the last decade, U.S. spy agencies are still lacking in language
skills needed to talk to locals, translate intercepted intelligence
and analyse data, according to top intelligence officials.

The CIA has run television ads geared toward recruiting from the
Arab-American and Iranian-American communities

12:22AM BST 20 Sep 2011

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks prompted a major push for foreign language
skills to track militants and trends in parts of the world that were
not a Cold War priority.  But intelligence agencies have had to face
the reality that the languages they need cannot be taught quickly, the
street slang U.S. operatives and analysts require is not easy, and
security concerns make the clearance process lengthy. As recently as
2008 and 2009, intelligence officials were still issuing new
directives and programs in the hopes of ramping up language

"Language will continue to be a challenge for us," Director of
National Intelligence James Clapper said at a congressional hearing
last week.
"It's something we're working at, and will continue to do so, but
we're probably not where we want to be," he said.

The U.S. government needs speakers of Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Dari,
Urdu, and other "exotic" languages which are more difficult for
English-speakers to learn.  "If you hark back to the Cold War days, it
was much easier for us to raise and have a cadre of highly qualified
linguists say in Russian and East European languages which comes to
our people much more naturally than to these Mideast languages,"
Clapper said.

The spy agencies will not publicly disclose the number of employees
with language skills. The Office of the Director of National
Intelligence (ODNI) says Arabic speaking capability increased
throughout the intelligence community about threefold over 10 years
and Afghanistan-Pakistan language capability – including Baluchi,
Dari, Kirghiz, Pashto, Punjabi, Tajik, Urdu, and Uzbek – increased by
30 times from before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Intelligence agencies require more than just a perfunctory grasp to
understand cultural meanings and different dialects. "In these very
difficult terrorism targets, there's obviously this yearning for
native speakers," said Ellen Laipson, president of the Stimson Center,
a Washington think tank. "Some of the people you're trying to track
are not themselves highly educated so they use a lot of slang, and
it's a higher standard than if you were trying to monitor or interact
with very elite foreign ministry people of a developed country."

U.S. spy agencies are reaching out to first- and second-generation
Americans whose heritage would provide the language and cultural
understanding quicker than trying to teach someone from scratch. But
they can face difficulties getting through the strict security
clearance process because of family ties back in their country of
heritage. Intelligence officials say they are trying to change that.
ODNI issued a directive in 2008 to make it easier to hire first- and
second-generation Americans whose heritage is from countries that can
raise potential security issues.

ODNI also started a Heritage Council to reach out to Americans of
Pakistani, Arab and Somali descent among others. The CIA has run
television ads geared toward recruiting from the Arab-American and
Iranian-American communities. And it says a higher percentage of CIA
officers are studying Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, Farsi, Russian, Korean,
and Chinese.

"The CIA is looking to hire first- and second-generation Americans –
people who know the cultures and speak the languages of the world in
which we operate," CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "We work very hard
to dispel the myth that they can't get a security clearance if they
have spent time overseas or have relatives abroad." But, Harf said, it
takes time. "For example, on 9/11, few American universities had
world-class Arabic language programs. That's changed now, in the same
way that the country mobilised to teach large numbers of students
Russian during the Cold War," she said.

Former CIA Director Leon Panetta made improving language proficiency a
top priority in 2009 with a five-year plan to sharply increase those
skills, including by tying promotions to senior ranks to language
ability. Language experts say the root of the problem lies in an
American education system that does not emphasise learning foreign
languages early on the way European schools do. The federal government
uses a language scale of zero to five to judge proficiency, where zero
is none and five is an educated native speaker.

"Up until now basically everybody has been pretty content to get twos,
which is basic communication skills. The intelligence community really
needs three, three-plus and fours," said Richard Brecht, executive
director of the University of Maryland Center for Advanced Study of
Language. The centre was founded in 2003 and funded by the Defense
Department to conduct research to improve language capability in the
intelligence community.  About 50 million people in the United States
speak a language other than English at home, which is an "immense
national language resource," Brecht said. But the spy agencies have to
compete with the private sector which is also seeking employees with
language skills.

"They are wanted by a lot of different organisations. Not only in
government but outside of government too. So it's a very competitive
environment," said Michael Birmingham, ODNI spokesman.



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


This message came to you by way of the lgpolicy-list mailing list
lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu
To manage your subscription unsubscribe, or arrange digest format: https://groups.sas.upenn.edu/mailman/listinfo/lgpolicy-list

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list