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The Collective
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
By Dr. Steven Taylor

The dearth of Arabic language expertise was a glaring problem within our intelligence/law enforcement communities that was exposed by 9/11. It would seem that in the last five years, that has not changed.

Via WaPo: FBI Agents Still Lacking Arabic Skills

Five years after Arab terrorists attacked the United States, only 33 FBI agents have even a limited proficiency in Arabic, and none of them work in the sections of the bureau that coordinate investigations of international terrorism, according to new FBI statistics.

Counting agents who know only a handful of Arabic words — including those who scored zero on a standard proficiency test — just 1 percent of the FBI’s 12,000 agents have any familiarity with the language, the statistics show.

I am not sure what the correct percentage needs to be, but am quite certain that that is far too low. The article does note that the agency has contract linguists, but that strikes me as inadequate if that is where the critical mass of language skills reside.

And having language skills isn’t just about translating intercepted materials:

Daniel Byman, a Georgetown University associate professor who heads the school’s Security Studies Program, said the FBI’s continuing failure to attract Arabic-speaking agents is “a serious problem” that hurts the bureau’s relations with immigrant communities and makes it more difficult to gather intelligence on extremist groups.

“With any new immigrant communities, they need these language skills, whether it’s Vietnamese or Pakistani or Arabic,” Byman said. “It also often gives you extra cultural knowledge and sensitivity. It makes you more sensitive to nuance, which is what investigations are often all about.”

Anyone who speaks other languages understands that one gains more than just the ability to decode foreign words when one learns a language.

And then there’s this element to the whole thing:

“It is easier to get a security clearance if you don’t have any interaction with foreigners, which is not what you want if you want better interaction with foreigners,” Byman said.

While one understands the need for caution, this strikes me as highly problematic. And while i have never gone through the process, I am familiar with FBI background checks, both because of the direct experience of a friend and also because I have been interviewed on several occasions as part of background checks for others. As such, I do not find it all unlikely that the process may indeed be screening out people who would be an asset.

Indeed, the story about language skills is the result of a lawsuit concerning an Arabic-speaking FBI agent who allegedly was frozen out of investigations post-9/11 because he was Egyptian by birth:

Some of the new information about language abilities at the FBI has emerged in connection with a lawsuit by one of the FBI’s highest-ranking Arabic speakers, Special Agent Bassem Youssef, who sued the Justice Department and the bureau alleging retaliation after he complained that he was cut out of terrorism cases after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Youssef, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Egypt, is one of only six FBI agents who scored a 4 for “advanced professional proficiency” in Arabic on standardized speaking tests administered by the Interagency Language Roundtable for federal agencies.

Given much of the post-9/11 paranoia that we have experience as a nation, that would not surprise me.

So, I guess if one doesn’t want the NSA to know what you are saying when they listen in on your international calls, your best bet is to speak in Arabic. Lovely.

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Filed under: US Politics, War on Terror | |

8 Comments

  1. I’m surprised you didn’t mention that in the aftermath of 9/11, the arab-american community was laregely alienated by a massive detention and deportation operation. Hard feelings towards the government (especially this government) remain strong. Those who before 9/11 would have been willing to undergo security checks to help the cause are now either hesitant, or outright hostile to the idea.

    Comment by LaurenceB — Wednesday, October 11, 2006 @ 7:40 am

  2. There is also the case of Sibel Edmons to consider. She was a contract translator for the FBI who started compaining about shoddy translations and a huge backlog of untranslated documents and was quickly fired.

    The FBI later admitted that Edmonds’ accusations were correct.

    I am know that this case-which didn’t get much mainstream media play-is well known in the Middle Eastern Studies community, who trains a lot of linguists. This may cause potential candidates for FBI jobs to think twice before applying.

    Comment by Ratoe — Wednesday, October 11, 2006 @ 9:49 am

  3. This is only one of several management failures perpetrated by the Bush administration. Other items on the list are FEMA, the security of chemical plants, the reconstruction of Afganistan and Iraq, and last - but most critical - the military manpower situation. This MBA president manages the government as badly as his other attempts at leadership.

    Comment by Lindata — Wednesday, October 11, 2006 @ 10:12 am

  4. Still, aren’t you Bushies glad the army is getting rid of Arab-language experts who are gay?

    Comment by Kevin Allison — Wednesday, October 11, 2006 @ 10:24 am

  5. Damn Kevin you stole my punch line.

    Comment by Roderick — Wednesday, October 11, 2006 @ 10:41 am

  6. Yeah, there are a couple obstacles:
    (1) Arabic in particular, as one of the world’s hardest languages (along with Korean, Japanese, and Chinese) requires significant time in a country to learn. This, of course, is a major black mark on a background test. In order to be fluent you also must speak two languages — modern standard (the language of newspapers, some TV, academic discourse) and local dialects that vary greatly depending on country and region. Again, this also contributes to the need to spend years living in a country.

    (2) It’s expensive. If you want people to learn these languages, you need to start handing out grants of $25-$50K so people can spend one to two years MINIMUM living abroad. If you want natural instead of naturalized citizens who speak fluently this is how you get them. And Bush, et al, simply aren’t serious about the War on Terror — or they’d pony up the $$$. How can anyone not see having sufficient arabic linguists available as a major security issue?

    (3) George Bush would tell the military to screw themselves when they discharge an Arabic linguist because he’s gay. He, in particular, made a choice — do we keep a trained linguist in great demand or kick out the homos? Well, actions reveal his true preferences.

    earl

    Comment by Earl — Wednesday, October 11, 2006 @ 12:19 pm

  7. FBI Agents Still Lacking Arabic Skills

    WaPo’s Dan Eggers reports that the FBI has made virtually no progress in getting its agents, who are theoretically at the pointy end of the domestic counterterrorism spear, training in Arabic.
    Five years after Arab terrorists attacked the United …

    Trackback by Outside The Beltway | OTB — Wednesday, October 11, 2006 @ 2:49 pm

  8. [...] And then there’s this from Poliblog, which kind of answers my last question above: So, I guess if one doesn’t want the NSA to know what you are saying when they listen in on your international calls, your best bet is to speak in Arabic. Lovely. [...]

    Pingback by Polimom Says » Where have all the linguists gone…? — Wednesday, October 11, 2006 @ 4:08 pm

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