Intelligence: Tongue Tied

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May 31, 2009: The CIA conducted a survey recently, and  much to its chagrin, found that only 13 percent of its personnel speak a foreign language (in the Department of Defense, its eight percent, and rising.) The new head of the CIA insists that this will change, as it should.

This lack of foreign language ability was no surprise to those who work with the CIA, especially foreign intelligence agencies, like Britain's MI-6, or the Israeli Mossad. These outfits have more than half (often nearly all) of their personnel speaking two or more languages. Even more embarrassingly, The Department of Defense has elite units, like the Special Forces, where more than half the personnel speak two or more languages. As a result of this, for a long time, the CIA has borrowed Special Forces operators when there was need for James Bond types who could speak the language, and understood the culture, in some distant hotspot.

The CIA wasn't always like this, but thirty years ago, Congress decided that working with foreigners was too dangerous (in terms of potential media embarrassment or politically incorrect situations), and that the CIA should do much less of it. So those multilingual wild men (and a few women) were eased out, and replaced with a lot of monolingual geeks who run the spy satellites, eavesdropping gear and all those computers.

Another problem with the CIA is their strict hiring policies, which usually rules out most multilingual people with close kin back in the old country. The CIA is going to try and change that policy as well. The goal of the new training program is to spend lots of money on language instruction, so that, in a few years, there is a fifty percent increase in multilingual analysts (who can understand the language of the area they are analyzing.)

Many in the agency have been, for years, urging a more aggressive language training program. But they were ignored, or told to shut up. It will take a decade or more, if ever, before the CIA reaches the level of language proficiency considered normal by most foreign intelligence agencies.

 


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