Lack of Translators Hurts U.S. War on Terror

Daily News Article   —   Posted on August 31, 2009

(by Rowan Scarborough, WashingtonTimes.com) – 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.

…………………………….

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.”

Copyright 2009 News World Communications, Inc.  Reprinted with permission of the Washington Times.  For educational purposes only.  This reprint does not constitute or imply any endorsement or sponsorship of any product, service, company or organization.  Visit the website at washingtontimes.com.

Questions

1. Read about Congressional committees in the “Background” below. What conclusion did the Senate Committee on Intelligence conclude about the number of U.S. intelligence personnel who are capable of reading and speaking targeted regional languages?

2. Why is it imperative that U.S. intelligence agencies have personnel capable of reading and speaking specific targeted languages?

3. How do CIA officials (and an unnamed former intelligence officer, para. 12-20) explain the lack of qualified translators almost eight years after 9/11? Be specific.

4. Do you think that U.S. intelligence should work with translators who attend extremist mosques or have untrustworthy relatives? Explain your answer.

5. a) What problem do intelligence agencies have with American translators who become fluent in one of the languages needed?
b) How do you think the agencies should attempt to solve this problem? Be specific.

6. Think about the following information from wikipedia.org below. The U.S. Intelligence community is obviously facing a challenging situation. Terrorists plotting attacks will of course speak dialects they believe the U.S. does not have the capability to translate. How should the CIA, NSA and others move forward to gain the capability of translating multiple languages and dialects in the coming years?

[Pakistan’s population is close to 200 million.]  Many regional languages are spoken in Pakistan and the major ones according to the number of native speakers are:
Punjabi (44%)
Pashto (15%)
Sindhi (14%)
Saraiki (10%)
Baluchi (4%)
Pakistan has about 1 million native speakers of Persian. Persian continues to be an important literary language in Pakistan. Arabic is popular due to religious significance. Most Pakistanis understand at least two languages.

Other languages spoken in Pakistan include: Aer, Badeshi, Bagri, Balti, Bateri, Bhaya, Brahui, Burushaski, Chilisso, Dameli, Dehwari, Dhatki, Domaaki, Farsi (Dari), Gawar-Bati, Ghera, Goaria, Gowro, Gujarati, Gujari, Gurgula, Hazaragi, Hindko (two varieties), Jadgali, Jandavra, Kabutra, Kachchi (Kutchi), Kalami, Kalasha, Kalkoti, Kamviri, Kashmiri, Kati, Khetrani, Khowar, Indus Kohistani, Koli (three varieties), Lasi, Loarki, Marwari, Memoni, Od, Ormuri, Pahari-Potwari, Pakistan Sign Language, Palula (Phalura), Sansi, Savi, Shina (two varieties), Torwali, Ushojo, Vaghri, Wakhi, Waneci, and Yidgha. Some of these have a relatively small number of speakers, while others have hundreds of thousands of speakers.

There are two official languages of Afghanistan, in addition to other languages that are spoken. The two official languages are also the most commonly spoken; the Dari dialect of the Persian language, is spoken as their first language by about 35% of the population, though this percentage also includes speakers of the Hazaragi dialect, about two million people. Pashto is also an official language and is spoken by 50% of the population. In addition, many Turkic languages such as Turkmen and Uzbek are spoken, as well as over thirty other languages. Much of the population is bilingual.


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Background

ON CONGRESSIONAL COMMITTEES:
  • Committee membership enables members to develop specialized knowledge of the matters under their jurisdiction.
  • As “little legislatures,” committees monitor on-going governmental operations, identify issues suitable for legislative review, gather and evaluate information; and recommend courses of action to their parent body.
  • There are three types of committees: standing, select or special, and joint committees.
  • Standing committees generally have legislative jurisdiction. (Subcommittees handle specific areas of the committee’s work.)
  • Select and joint committees generally handle oversight or housekeeping responsibilities.
  • The chair of each committee and a majority of its members represent the majority party. The chair primarily controls a committee’s business.
  • There are 21 permanent committees in the House of Representatives, and 20 in the Senate. Four joint committees operate with members from both houses on matters of mutual jurisdiction and oversight.

ON THE HOUSE PERMANENT SELECT COMMITTEE ON INTELLIGENCE:
The committee drafts the laws that govern, authorizes the funding for, and provides Congressional oversight of the 16 agencies that comprise the U.S. intelligence community, which includes components of the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, State and Energy.

ON THE SENATE SELECT COMMITTEE ON INTELLIGENCE: (from intelligence.senate.gov/jurisdiction.html)
The purpose of the Senate Committee on Intelligence is to:
-oversee and make continuing studies of the intelligence activities and programs of the United States Government
-to submit to the Senate appropriate proposals for legislation and report to the Senate concerning such intelligence activities and programs.
In carrying out this purpose, the Select Committee on Intelligence shall make every effort to assure that the appropriate departments and agencies of the United States provide informed and timely intelligence necessary for the executive and legislative branches to make sound decisions affecting the security and vital interests of the Nation. It is further the purpose of this resolution to provide vigilant legislative oversight over the intelligence activities of the United States to assure that such activities are in conformity with the Constitution and laws of the United States.

  • For more information on Senate committees and the Senate Intelligence Committee, visit senate.gov and click on the “Committees” link in the top nav bar.
  • For more information on House committees and the House Intelligence Committee, visit house.gov and click on the “Committees” link in the left nav bar.
  • Read more about Congressional committees at wikipedia.org.

Resources

For a list of the top 30 languages spoken around the world, go to vistawide.com/languages/top_30_languages.htm.