- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

Who’s in charge?

How many times have you seen it reported that U.S. intelligence agencies are in dire need of Americans with Arabic language skills, particularly as the war on terrorism escalates?

Just this week, Inside the Beltway wrote about Uncle Sam’s concern that U.S. foreign-language deficiencies could prove deadly. We cited, for example, the FBI’s backlog of untranslated audio counterterrorism materials, which nearly doubled from 2004 to 2005 — to more than 8,000 hours.

Still, one has to question how anxious the federal government really is to fill its homeland security gaps.

Consider “Chris,” who doesn’t wish to have his last name revealed, but who is a confidential assistant to the director of the Peace Corps in Washington.

“I started studying Arabic in the fall of 2003 at Middlebury College, which is widely regarded as one of the top undergraduate institutions in America to study a foreign language. I was affected by the 9/11 attacks, and I thought that by knowing Arabic I would be able to serve my country in a beneficial way,” Chris explains to Inside the Beltway.

“After the 2003-2004 academic year, I studied Arabic at a very intense level at the Middlebury College Summer Language Schools. Middlebury’s Arabic summer school is regarded as the best place in the world, including the Middle East, to study the language. I then spent the entire 2004-2005 academic year studying at the American University in Cairo.

“During my entire first semester in Cairo, I only took Arabic language courses — 5 Arabic courses. Upon returning to Middlebury College for my senior year, there were no Arabic courses for my level. So instead I did a one-on-one independent study with an Arabic professor, which included writing a 15-page paper in Arabic on Koranic support for a representative form of government.”

In January 2006, Chris traveled to Cairo on a fellowship. There he interviewed — in Arabic — leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb al-Wasat for his honors thesis, which examined the two parties’ calls for an Islamic democracy in Egypt. His paper subsequently was awarded Middlebury’s best thesis focusing on an international issue and was nominated for a national award.

But wait, there’s more to this amazing story.

“I spent the summer of 2006 in Yemen studying Arabic at the most advanced level on a State Department Critical Languages Fellowship — yes, that is correct, the U.S. government paid for me and 17 other advanced Arabic students to study at a very high level in Yemen,” Chris reveals.

Obviously, Chris is highly proficient in Arabic — reading, writing, listening, speaking — and extremely knowledgeable of the Middle East, its culture and its religions. In spring 2006, before graduating from Middlebury, he applied for positions at the National Security Agency, FBI, Defense Intelligence Agency and Pentagon, and forwarded several resumes to the CIA.

“I never heard back from any of the agencies. None. Not one,” he tells this column. “And after I returned back from Yemen, the State Department, which paid for my fellowship, never contacted me or anybody else that was in my group, all of whom achieved advanced levels of Arabic proficiency.

“Fortunately for me, I interned in the [Bush] White House in the summer of 2005, so when I graduated from Middlebury I was able to receive a schedule-C appointment focusing on international affairs. But for all those other American Arabic speakers out there — including the ones that received fellowships from the State Department — they are waiting to serve their country if given the chance.”

Let’s hope the U.S. intelligence agencies get their acts together soon enough to hire them.

In the meantime, the Peace Corps says it is delighted to have Chris on board. One official there told us yesterday that one reason Chris was hired was “because of his Arabic skills and knowledge of the Middle East and Islam.” Among many regions of the world, the Peace Corps serves in several Arabic-speaking countries and 15 predominantly Muslim countries.

John McCaslin, whose column is nationally syndicated, can be reached at 202/636-3284 or jmccaslin@washingtontimes.com.

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