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EXCLUSIVE: Lack of translators hurts U.S. war on terror
U.S. national security agencies remain woefully short of foreign-language speakers and translators nearly eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks resulted in a war on an enemy that often communicates in relatively obscure dialects, current and former officials say.
The necessary cadre of U.S. intelligence personnel capable of reading and speaking targeted regional languages such as Pashto, Dari and Urdu “remains essentially nonexistent,” the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence wrote in a rare but stark warning in its 2010 budget report.
The gap has become critical in the war effort, especially in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater, where al Qaeda and Taliban operatives text message, e-mail and talk in languages that the intelligence community had largely ignored before 2001.
Intercepting phone and radio calls in the region’s native tongues is critical to monitoring terrorist camps and movements in Pakistan’s tribal areas, officials said.
The National Security Agency (NSA), based at Fort Meade, Md., channels the calls to translation centers, where linguists are supposed to quickly translate the words into English so that they can be distributed in reports and raw transcripts to commanders and policymakers. But such quick follow-through does not always happen.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the senior Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told The Washington Times that U.S agencies remain “behind the eight ball” in catching up to dialects not deemed important during the Cold War.
“We’ve been pushing the language issue for an extended period of time. The agencies just didn’t respond,” Mr. Hoekstra said in an interview. “They’d come in. We’d talk about language capability. We’d beat them up. They’d leave. They’d come back a year later, and it wouldn’t be a lot better. We’d beat them up again.
“I can’t explain it. No. 1, Congress has been pestering them. No. 2, you would think it’s important for them to do their job. You could understand it immediately after 9/11. This takes a little time to do to get it right. But still talking about it in 2009 makes no sense at all,” he said.
Intelligence officials say they’ve offered significant sums of money to try to lure more translators, but recruitment remains slow and some attractive candidates have trouble passing the review for security clearances.
“We’ve made progress on foreign languages — including Pashto, Dari and Urdu — but there’s more to be done,” CIA spokesman George Little said. “We continue to offer generous financial incentives to individuals with foreign-language skills, including hiring bonuses and additional pay for current officers.”
CIA Director Leon E. Panetta, who has vowed to change the culture at Langley, sent out a message in May to employees announcing “an aggressive plan to build the truly multilingual work force we need.” He said he wants to double the number of analysts and clandestine service officers who speak foreign languages and “dramatically transform the way CIA trains in foreign language capability.”
A former intelligence officer who worked on methods to intercept calls while in Afghanistan told The Times that finding or training people to speak obscure languages is easier said than done.
The former officer, who asked not to be named because the information is classified, said intelligence agency representatives have visited polyglot locations such as Detroit to recruit native speakers.
“They were able to find many recent immigrants and first-generation U.S. citizens with needed language skills,” he said. “But none of them could pass a background check.”
To listen and translate al Qaeda telephone calls, or interrogate a suspect, translators must attain a top-secret clearance. But investigators often found that the candidate belonged to a mosque where extremism was preached, or had relatives back home deemed “not trustworthy,” the former officer said.
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