Intelligence: The Man With No Name


October 12,2008:  The United States has ordered Iraqi translators, working for the U.S. military, to stop wearing masks on the job. Actually, the new rule forbids Iraqi translators from hiding their identities at all. But for these men and women, hiding their identity from Iraqis is considered a matter of life and death. Iraqi terrorists have always seen Iraqis working as translators for the Americans as traitors, not to mention a serious threat to terrorists. The translators were marked for death, and hundreds were murdered, or forced to flee the country in the last five years. But the Department of Defense believes that terrorism has been reduced sufficiently in Iraq, that the translators are no longer in danger. The brass tried to impose this policy twice before, in 2005 and 2007, and both times it was ignored. Again, the commanders who use the interpreters have generally ignored the order, and allow their Iraqi translators to cover up.

The Department of Defense was never able to train enough new military interpreters, so it was forced to hire local people. That was never easy, in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The problem was because the local terrorists realized that the interpreters were important, and they, well, terrorize the interpreters into quitting or, even better, becoming a terrorist spy. This, obviously complicated things for the combat troops who needed the interpreters to get their work done. The solution has been to have the intelligence troops work closely with hiring and monitoring interpreters. In some parts of Iraq and Afghanistan, the interpreters are hired in secret, and much effort goes into keeping their job status secret from the local community.

It didn't take U.S. troops long to realize that the most dangerous intelligence job in Iraq was that of interpreter. So far, over two hundred have been killed by terrorists, including nearly twenty who were American citizens. Many of the Iraqi interpreters, and their families, have been allowed to live on American bases, and some are being offered permanent residence in the United States. Most of the interpreters regard the death threats from terrorists as part of the job. It's a good job, paying far more than most other work available in Iraq. Starting salary for interpreters is $600 a month, going up to $1,000 or more for particularly dangerous or difficult assignments. The average monthly salary in Iraq these days is one or two hundred dollars.

But the danger is great. From 2005-7, when two out of every thousand American soldiers serving in Iraq got killed, some 30 out of a every thousand translators died. In June, 2006, ten interpreters were killed in Afghanistan. For many interpreters, the job is more than a big paycheck. English speaking Iraqis also have a better idea of how things work in the rest of the world, and are eager to help Iraq overcome its gruesome past.

Another way to get Arabic interpreters is to hire them from other Arab nations. This isn't as easy as it sounds, because not a lot of these non-Iraqi Arabs can easily deal with the Iraqi dialect. But the money is attractive, and many linguists in nearby Arab nations have learned the Iraqi dialect in order to get these jobs. There is also a feeling that Iraq will soon present many economic opportunities, providing less dangerous work for non-Iraqis who understand the Iraqi dialect. Some Arabic speaking Americans, after one tour in Iraq, have comes back to help with screening English speaking Arabs applying for interpreters. To attract the needed number of interpreters, many of the supervisory and screening personnel are hired via contractors. That way, these people, who are in short supply, can be offered enough money to induce them to take on this work.

The Department of Defense can get enough interpreters for Iraq and Afghanistan operations, but only by hiring a lot of foreigners. This is risky from a security point of view. Terrorist groups, and hostile governments, can get to these foreign interpreters eventually, and find out a lot about American intelligence techniques. This is a long term price to pay, in order to deal with the short term interpreter shortage.





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