US spy agencies still lack foreign language experts

Urdu script

Urdu script

A US media outlet has finally followed up on the warnings, made by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last July, about the lack of trained foreign-language speakers in the US intelligence community. Following similar warnings by the US House intelligence panel in June, the Senate Intelligence Committee used the opportunity of its authorization (.pdf) of the 2010 intelligence budget to draw attention to “the continuing lack of critical language-capable personnel in the Intelligence Community, and the need to address this shortage”. According to The Washington Times, which noticed the Senate Committee’s brief but critical alert, US intelligence agencies remain “woefully short” of foreign-language speakers, let alone experts. Speaking to the paper, intelligence insiders said that speakers of targeted regional languages and dialects, such as Dari, Pashto, Urdu, and even Hindi, “remain essentially nonexistent” in the US intelligence community. This is so despite frequent attempts by US intelligence recruiters to approach Muslim communities in states like California and Michigan. But such efforts have often involved unnecessarily hardball tactics, and have been shunned by American Muslims, who tend to view them as domestic intelligence operations. Moreover, according to an anonymous insider who spoke to The Washington Times, many native Arabic, Pashto, or Urdu speakers who apply for positions often fail security clearance procedures, due to their membership in “mosque[s] where extremism [is] preached” or because of connections with “untrustworthy” friends or relatives in their countries of origin. Even the few individuals trained in high-demand foreign languages by US intelligence agencies often migrate to the private sector, once US taxpayers have funded their training. They then approach US intelligence agencies as independent contractors, charging exorbitant rates for their services. Because of these inefficiencies, there are currently only “a handful of security-cleared Kurdish speakers in the United States, Canada and Britain”, says the paper.

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Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

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