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.
“They are likely to be swayed by their family,” the source added. “At least that is the conventional wisdom.”
He said he had personal knowledge of tapped phone calls going untranslated for days because of personnel shortages. There are only a handful of security-cleared Kurdish speakers in the United States, Canada and Britain — countries that trade in intercepted communications.
“Anything that goes on in northern Iraq, where Kurdish is spoken, is really tough for us,” the former officer said. He recalled an Iraqi bomb maker in the Kurdish north whose calls were intercepted but not translated for days, allowing him to stay on the move.
The source added that inhabitants of the Korengal Valley, in the Taliban-infested Kunar province in Afghanistan, speak their own little-known dialect.
“It is almost impossible to do anything in a timely manner there,” he said.
The Senate intelligence committee is now applying its own pressure. Its budget report for fiscal 2010 stated, “persistent critical shortages in some languages contribute to the loss of intelligence information and affect the ability of the intelligence community to process and exploit what it does collect.”
The report devoted only a few paragraphs to the issue and didn’t spell out in detail why the CIA, the NSA and the Defense Intelligence Agency are not fully staffed with foreign-language specialists.
Without a full cadre of native speakers, the intelligence community must rely on trained Americans. But Pashto, Dari and other dialects are difficult to learn and take years to master. Americans cannot duplicate the intricate knowledge of native speakers.
“Once they are trained that well they can make more money elsewhere,” the former intelligence officer said. Indeed, the NSA relies on private contractors to do some of the translating, as does the military.
The FBI makes up one prong of the U.S. intelligence community cited in the Senate panel report. The bureau contends that it has assembled a strong cadre of regional language speakers, in-house and with private contractors.
Its role is critical: It translates thousands of al Qaeda documents seized here and abroad, and interrogates terrorism suspects around the world. The FBI also may have a larger interrogation role now that the Obama White House has taken control of interrogations away from the CIA.
“We have recruited many more language specialists since 9/11 as well as our part in the Virtual Translation Center,” Assistant FBI Director John Miller said. The center is a multiagency facility intended to pull various language skills into one place.
“On the subject of the recently announced joint interrogation teams, one of the strengths of it is that you are working off a multiagency platform, so between all the participating agencies, you should be able to find the right speaker with the right dialect for the mission,” Mr. Miller said in an e-mail.
But Stephen Kohn, a Washington lawyer who has represented two FBI whistleblowers who have suspected failings in the bureau’s anti-terrorism efforts, said the committee’s criticism applies to the bureau, too.
“They just don’t have the speakers, especially in any type of operational capacity,” Mr. Kohn said.
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.”