The New York TimesNational security officials are warning of critical shortages in their ability to understand the languages of other nations, and so unravel their secrets.
April 16, 2001
Washington Cites Shortage of Linguists for Key Security JobsBy Diana Jean Schemo
As a band of trained terrorists plotted to blow up the World Trade Center, clues to the devastation ahead lay under the nose of law enforcement officials.
The F.B.I. held videotapes, manuals and notebooks on bomb making that had been seized from Ahmad Ajaj, a Palestinian serving time in federal prison for passport fraud. There were phone calls the prison had taped, in which Mr. Ajaj guardedly told another terrorist how to build the bomb.
There was one problem: they were in Arabic. Nobody who understood Arabic listened to them until after the explosion at the Trade Center on Feb. 26, 1993, which killed six people and injured more than a thousand.
The tale is but one illustration of what intelligence and law enforcement officials describe as an increasingly dire lack of foreign language expertise that is undermining national security.
In the post-Soviet world, where threats are more diffuse and scattered over the map, military, diplomatic and intelligence officials are warning of critical shortages in their ability to understand the languages of other nations, and so unravel their secrets.
The reasons are many. With English increasingly becoming the world's lingua franca, the study of foreign languages has suffered. Taxpayer pressure on school districts to cut budgets and focus on the basics of reading and math has shortchanged language courses, and districts that are interested in teaching foreign languages report a shortage of qualified teachers.
At the same time, the need for language proficiency has grown as security threats have fragmented and the ability to eavesdrop has expanded.
But government layoffs and employee buyouts have trimmed foreign language expertise drastically, said Theodore Crump, who is updating a book cataloging the federal government's foreign language needs. These days, most agencies can only hope to catch up with, rather than anticipate, their needs.
"Back in 1985 the terrorist thing didn't really come up," he said of the year he first prepared the book. "Now, when you have the possibility of someone coming in with a weapon of mass destruction in a suitcase, it changes the whole picture."
While the cold war's end has brought waves of immigrants with knowledge of obscure languages to the United States, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have been reluctant to hire great numbers of them, citing a weakness in English and, frequently, difficulties in gaining security clearances for them.
According to testimony last September before a Senate subcommittee, roughly half of the State Department's diplomatic postings are filled by people lacking necessary foreign language skills.
The F.B.I. must translate a million pages and untold hours of intercepted conversations a year and faces a mounting backlog that undermines its ability to prevent some crimes and investigate others.
Intelligence agencies say they are frequently caught short in times of crisis, lacking a sufficient pool of agents and analysts with needed languages, from Arabic to Korean and most recently Macedonian.
Thousands of scientific and technical papers also go untranslated, depriving analysts and policy makers of vital information about the state of foreign research in a range of areas, the Senate heard.
Robert O. Slater is director of the National Security Education Program run by the Defense Department, which offers grants to promote the study of foreign languages and cultures. Mr. Slater said that in the last decade, the linguistic shortfalls had gone from an episodic to a chronic problem. "It's now affecting the ability of federal agencies to address their missions," he said.
A sobering illustration came in 1998, with the nuclear tests in Pakistan and India, said Richard D. Brecht, who runs the University of Maryland's National Foreign Language Center. Official documents on the failure of United States intelligence to translate information that could have warned policy makers of the explosions "remain classified, but you can rest assured that those surprised people," Mr. Brecht said. The explosions, he added, "should not have been surprises."
According to government figures, American colleges and universities graduated only nine students who majored in Arabic last year. Only about 140 students graduated with degrees in Chinese, and only a handful in Korean.
These days, only 8.2 percent of American college and university students enroll in foreign language courses nearly all in Spanish, French and German, said Phyllis Franklin, executive director of the Modern Language Association.
That figure, she said, has remained essentially unchanged since 1976. But the demand for language speakers has ballooned.
Many of the lapses in essential translation skills remain invisible to the average citizen, who seldom learns of the linguistic flubs and risks that could have been avoided. But sometimes they spill into the public realm.
In November the publicly accessible version of the C.I.A.'s Foreign Broadcast Information Service, its roundup of foreign news reports, translated an article in a Palestinian newspaper accusing Israel of using weapons containing "phlebotomized uranium" -- which does not exist -- instead of "depleted uranium."
"If such a wild mistranslation by F.B.I.S. is not a private joke, then it is an embarrassing sign of incompetence," said a report on the slip-up in the Secrecy News, an electronic newsletter put out by the American Federation of Scientists.
Mr. Brecht, co-author with William P. Rivers of "Language and National Security in the 21st Century," likened the current period, with its recognition of foreign language deficiencies, to the late 1950's, when the Soviet launching of Sputnik triggered a nationwide mission to raise the level of science and mathematics training.
This time it is the end of the cold war that is spurring the sense of crisis. The Soviet Union required knowledge of one language, Russian, for analysts and diplomats. Its map has broken up into a linguistic jigsaw puzzle of 15 official languages, from Armenian to Ukrainian to Kazakh to Belarussian, and more than 100 ethnic enclaves.
The State Department has had to provide staff for 22 new posts in republics of the former Soviet Union, a region once covered with Russian speakers in Moscow. The linguistic fragmentation is reflected on the political and military fronts as well.
"It's not that the Department of Defense or anyone else has been neglectful," Mr. Brecht said. "It's just that requirements have exploded and budgeting for language is not the easiest thing to do."
There is no single solution.
A number of government agencies, including the Defense Department, are using computers to take a first pass at reducing the load of material for translation.
The Justice Department is exploring the use of a pool of translators with security clearance who could work for a number of agencies. The State Department increased language training for junior officers ninefold between 1997 and 1999.
The Defense and State Departments run the largest factories for training foreign language speakers in the country. Ray Clifford, provost of the Defense Language Training Institute, notes that the languages the military considers critical are not those generally taught in universities, so the military for the most part does its own training.
"The largest number of enrollments in the school system is Spanish," Dr. Clifford said. "Our No. 1 enrollment is in Arabic." The military has more students learning Arabic, Chinese, Korean and Russian than it does Spanish, he said.
Compared with the nine students majoring in Arabic last year in colleges, his institute graduated 409. It graduated 120 students in Farsi. Dr. Clifford said he could not even find figures on Farsi among colleges and universities.
For the first time, the military is planning to set quotas for the recruitment of so-called heritage speakers the children of immigrants.
Advances in technology have multiplied the ability to eavesdrop and, consequently, the material requiring translation, Mr. Crump said.
Margaret R. Gulotta, the F.B.I.'s section chief for language services, said court-sanctioned wiretaps have to be translated as conversations take place. The expertise needed is high, with suspects frequently using coded language.
And in investigating the bombing of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the bureau came across a tape recording in an esoteric language. Eventually, the bureau was able to identify the language, but found nobody with the required security clearance who could translate it.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times