EXCLUSIVE: Lack of translators hurts U.S. war on terror

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The lawyer bases his view on his representation of whistleblowers Sibel Edmonds and Bassem Youssef, two FBI employees who made charges of discrimination and incompetence inside the bureau’s counterterrorism efforts. Ms. Edmonds was a translator, and Mr. Youssef is an agent who worked in counterterrorism. Mr. Kohn quizzed senior FBI managers about their capabilities in depositions in both cases.

“In the Cold War, people studied Russian or Chinese and came up through the ranks speaking those languages. But in the war on terror, with these languages, it just came upon the United States,” Mr. Kohn said. “It was all of a sudden different languages are needed. No one spoke it. In the entire FBI, at the GS-15 level and above, there were three fluent Arabic-speaking agents at the time of 9/11. Three in 15,000. The same thing for the CIA.

“If they made Arabic or any of these other languages required, those people who were in line to get management jobs, and had friends, wouldn’t get the jobs. So I can tell you at the FBI, as startling as this sounds, they decided consciously not to require Arabic speaking for any supervisory position in the entire FBI.”

Mr. Kohn said few, if any, managers, speak regional languages, so they must rely on translators. “This at best constitutes a delay that has caused major operational problems,” he said.

FBI spokesman Paul Bresson disputed Mr. Kohn’s characterization of few managers able to speak regional languages.

“That is incorrect. 95% of our linguists are native speakers of the foreign languages who are well-versed in the cultures and religions. We have linguist supervisors proficient in Hindi, Urdu, Farsi and Arabic — who have been promoted from the linguist ranks,” Mr. Bresson said in an e-mail.

“The bureau is well positioned in many of the languages that support the war on terror; however, we still need linguists in many of the less-commonly spoken languages to be able to address 100% of our requirements. For now we have the capability to handle all of our highest priority needs.”

Mr. Kohn said the problems in the FBI cited by his clients are not unique.

“What Bassem told me was it is the same problem the CIA has, the same problem NSA has,” Mr. Kohn said. “All of these agencies did not adequately prepare before and have not staffed up after. The Senate committee’s observations are 100 percent on point even today. The failure of the intelligence community to require foreign language skills as a prerequisite for promotion has undermined national security and created a disincentive for recruitment.”

Mr. Hoekstra, asked to explain the lack of progress, said, “I just think this is one where they had other priorities they think they should have been working on. It’s just a lack of focus, lack of priorities and a lack of management.”

The Senate committee is looking for results. It wants agencies to develop a comprehensive strategy by year’s end, and it added budget money to fix what it called “this perpetual problem.”

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