On February 26, 1993, terrorists exploded a bomb under New York’s World Trade Center, killing six people and injuring a thousand. At the time, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) held tapes and documents containing clues about what the terrorists were planning. But the material was in Arabic, and translation did not take place until after the attacks occurred. Eight years later, history repeated itself: the day after a second terrorist attack brought down both towers of the trade center, translators found intercepts hinting that an attack would occur on 9-11.
Episodes such as these have led to a wholesale reorganization of the U.S. intelligence apparatus and congressional inquiries into the adequacy of military preparations for coping with unconventional threats. But despite expending billions of man-hours and trillions of dollars on national security since 9-11, some of the most basic deficiencies have not been fixed. One such deficiency is a shortage of foreign language skills in the federal government. There is growing evidence that poor language proficiency is impairing national security:
• The U.S. Army has so few Arabic speakers in its ranks that whole brigades, containing thousands of soldiers, deploy to Iraq with only a few fluent interpreters. That forces combat units to rely on locals of questionable loyalty and skill to understand what the Iraqis they meet are saying and doing.
• U.S. intelligence agencies have accumulated a backlog of millions of potentially important documents awaiting translation. Organizations such as the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency have encountered chronic problems in trying to recruit capable speakers of Arabic, Turkic, Indic and Iranian dialects.
• Three in ten State Department personnel serving overseas in language-sensitive positions lack adequate proficiency in local languages, and in places where Arabic or Chinese are spoken, the number rises to four in ten. Over half of the State Department personnel holding languagesensitive positions in Baghdad, Cairo, and Kabul do not have adequate proficiency.
• Although the FBI has quadrupled the number of Arabic translators on its staff since 9-11, only 33 agents have even limited proficiency in the language, and a mere four (out of 12,000) have advanced proficiency. Terrorists in federal prison were able to send over 90 letters to sympathizers overseas, because none of the Justice Department personnel at the prison could understand what the letters said.
Perhaps such problems shouldn’t come as a shock in a country where colleges and universities graduated a grand total of only nine Arabic majors in the year before 9-11. With less than ten percent of college students enrolling in any form of foreign language training, the federal government has always relied on its own language schools and recent immigrants to satisfy linguistic needs. But the problem of deficient language resources is so persistent — from Somali to Serbo-Croation to Farsi to Urdu — that policymakers have finally recognized the need for fundamental reform.
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