IC’s Language, Linguistic Shortfalls Under Scrutiny

The rank and file analysts at the CIA, NSA and elsewhere throughout the Intelligence Community (IC) are patriotic, dedicated … hardworking. But they have long been hampered by a lack of both linguists and language proficient subject matter experts to help them make sense of the overwhelming storm of intelligence that is routinely siphoned from the air and gathered by human intelligence sources every day. This blizzard of information is blinding.
According to IC sources HSToday.us talked on background, the IC’s failure to detect the recent attempted terrorist attacks on the US homeland wasn’t just about the failure to connect the existing dots – of which there were many – but also was because of the inability to quickly and effectively interpret country-language specific intelligence, such as that which was collected in Yemen.
They said if there’d been an adequate cadre of linguistic and language proficient subject matter experts with years of experience in place, they probably would have easily seen the indications that there was a dangerous growth of radicalized Muslims with Al Qaeda sympathies, and that would have indicated to analysts – or hopefully would have – that Al Qaeda in Yemen was far closer to becoming an operational component of Al Qaeda central than previous intelligence had indicated.
“Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the offshoot of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network operating in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, has evolved into an ambitious organization capable of using nontraditional recruits to launch attacks against American targets within the Middle East and beyond. Evidence of its potential became front-page news after a young Nigerian trained at one of its camps in Yemen tried to blow up a passenger aircraft bound for Detroit on Christmas Day,” stated the report, “Al Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia: A Ticking Time Bomb,” released by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations this week.
“For American counterterrorism experts in the region,” the report stated, “the Christmas Day plot was a nearly catastrophic illustration of a significant new threat from a network previously regarded as a regional danger, rather than an international one. The concern now is that the group has grown more dangerous by taking advantage of the weakened central government in Yemen, which is struggling with civil conflicts and declining natural resources. These experts have said they are worried that training camps established in remote parts of Yemen by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are being run by former detainees and veteran fighters from Afghanistan and Iraq and used to instruct U.S. citizens who have immigrated to Yemen to marry local women or after converting to Islam in American prisons.”
The IC’s having missed that Al Qaeda was operational in Yemen was first outlined in the preliminary report on why the IC didn’t connect the dots in the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who’d been trained and indoctrinated by Al Qaeda in Yemen who on Christmas day tried to detonate a sophisticated and cleverly hidden bomb on board Northwest Airline flight 253 transporting nearly 300 people over Detroit.
That the IC missed precisely what Al Qaeda was up to in its original stomping grounds was a blistering indictment of the failure of IC analysts to understand what was happening there – and part of the problem, IC officials told HSToday.us, is because the IC doesn’t have enough linguists and language-speaking subject matter/regional speakers.
The interception of electronic communications in a specific region’s native languages is vital to monitoring and, most importantly, understanding terrorist operations and activities in these areas.
Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the senior Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told The Washington Times last fall that the IC is still "behind the eight ball" in catching up to dialects that were not deemed all that important during the Cold War when the IC was focused on the Soviet Union, Eastern bloc and its global allies.
"We’ve been pushing the language issue for an extended period of time. The agencies just didn’t respond," Hoekstra was quoted saying. “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.”
Last July, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reported that it “is concerned about the abysmal state of the Intelligence Community’s foreign language programs.”
The Committee’s report noted that “the collection of intelligence depends heavily on language, whether information is gathered in the field from a human source or from a technical collection system. Even traditionally nonlinguistic operations such as imagery rely on foreign language skills to focus and direct collection efforts.”
However, the Committee concluded, “almost eight years after the terrorist attacks of September 11th and the shift in focus to a part of the world with different languages than previous targets, the cadre of intelligence professionals capable of speaking, reading, or understanding critical regional languages such as Pashto, Dari, or Urdu remains essentially nonexistent.”
Continuing, the report stated that “the Intelligence Reform Act required the DNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] to identify the linguistic requirements of the Intelligence Community, and to develop a comprehensive plan to meet those requirements.”
But “five years later, the ODNI has still not completed an IC-wide comprehensive foreign language plan that designates specific linguist or language requirements, lays out goals or timelines, or designates specific actions required to meet them.”
“Furthermore,” the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations report concluded that “individual agency and military service programs aimed at creating strategies to improve foreign language programs are inconsistent across the Intelligence Community. NSA has near real-time visibility of its language-capable employees and hires and trains according to actual needs, but most other Intelligence Community agencies have no similar capability. The new director of the CIA recently announced a major overhaul of the CIA’s foreign language hiring, training, maintenance, and use policies which should eventually result in a more language capable workforce, but other agencies have not been similarly aggressive.”
The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) “continues to suffer from chronic shortages of language-capable employees, but has not developed a strategy for improvement. To explain their failure to redress critical gaps in national security foreign language capacity, agencies point to their lack of control over clearance processes, shallow hiring pools, the inability to allocate time to training, insufficient resources, and, in some cases, a dearth of qualified instructors. Yet, the United States is one of the most polyglot of developed countries – more than one in five Americans speak a language other than English in the home and more than a million citizens are of Middle East or South Asian descent.”
“The Committee is concerned that 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 Committee’s report stated, noting that “this seriously hampers the nation’s ability to engage constructively and appropriately overseas.”
In December, the Committee expected “a comprehensive strategy for improving foreign language capabilities across the Intelligence Community, including but not limited to meeting the requirements for translators, interpreters, collectors, analysts, liaison officers and attaches.”
The Committee “provided additional resources to address this perpetual shortcoming … as discussed in the classified annex” of the report.
But now a little more than five months after the Committee issued its report and the DoJ IG continued to find deficiencies in the FBI’s language/linguistic capabilities, the IC still has important pockets of critical intelligence analysis that continue to suffer from a lack of sufficient numbers of proficient language speakers and linguists, IC insiders told HSToday.us. And it’s hindering “our ability to understand the level and degree of radicalization in areas like Yemen, and our ability to understand ground-level truth about terrorist” plotting, communication, and other activities …”
This at a time when, "as the Christmas Day attempted bombing illustrates, the threats we face are becoming more diverse and more dangerous with each passing day," FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.
In 2004 and 2005, the Department of Justice’s (DoJ) Inspector General (IG) completed audits of the FBI’s foreign language translation operations. The 2004 audit found “that the FBI had significant backlogs of unreviewed audio material awaiting translation that had been collected in high priority cases,” the IG determined. “Additionally, we found weaknesses within the FBI’s Foreign Language Program [FLP] that hindered the FBI’s ability to review and translate the counterterrorism and counterintelligence audio material it collected.”
In its 2005 follow-up audit, the IG “found that while the FBI made some improvement in several of these areas, significant deficiencies remained in the FBI’s FLP.”
It had been well known in IC circles over the previous decade that the FBI had consistently been chronically short of the foreign language speakers and linguists that the Bureau’s caseload demanded.
Last October, the DoJ IG followed up on its earlier audits. It reported that “the FBI reviewed 100 percent of the 4.8 million foreign language text pages it collected for its counterterrorism, counterintelligence, and criminal investigation between Fiscal Years 2006 and 2008. However, we found that the FBI did not review 14.2 million (31 percent) of the 46 million electronic files that it collected during this same period. In addition, for counterterrorism and counterintelligence operations between Fiscal Years 2003 and 2008 and for criminal investigations between Fiscal Years 2005 and 2008, we found that the FBI did not review 1.2 million hours (25 percent) of the 4.8 million audio hours it collected. Of this unreviewed material, 1 percent of the total unreviewed audio and text material and 72 percent of the unreviewed electronic files was material entirely in English.”
The IG report noted that “significant portions of the FBI’s unreviewed audio material were collected for cases in its two highest-priority counterterrorism and counterintelligence categories.”
“This means the Bureau, which serves as America’s primary counterintelligence and counterterrorism force, has been unable to read tens of thousands of pages and listen to or review 1.2 million hours of audio intercepts in the last two years alone,” said outspoken veteran CIA officer Robert David Steele. “Remarkably, despite the well-understood need for foreign-language specialists in the post-9/11 security environment, the audit found that the total number of FBI translators dropped from 1,338 in March 2005 to 1,298 in September last year. And this despite the FBI’s ‘100 percent’ increase in workload since 9/11.”
Steele maintains that the “IC is still deaf, dumb, and blind, without the language skills for either face to face exploitation, or remote exploitation. It takes ten days for a captured Dari document to be translated, and even then we’re not sure it is a good translation,” Steele said.
Continuing, Steele, who did three tours focused on terrorists and extremists, served in three of the Agency’s four directorates and was selected for the CIA Mid-Career Course, told HSToday.us that the “FBI, CIA, even NSA have simply not taken their responsibilities for global coverage seriously,” noting that “the primary obstacle is the obsession about only hiring people with clearances on the one hand, and the idiocy of relying on local liaison (e.g. the Jordanians whose agent just killed three CIA officers and contractors all clueless on tradecraft) on the other hand.”
"At the port level, we have a pretty diverse group, as far as languages go … plus, we use interpreters when needed,” a senior Department of Homeland Security intelligence analyst told HSToday.us.
“I know it is important to work on languages such as Arabic … yet, it is still possible to have an adequate grasp of the adversary we face without deep fluency … especially in these modern ‘electronic’ times,’” the analyst said. “Even so, I study Qur’anic Arabic, so that I can adequately translate important passages, etc.”
Throughout the IC, linguistic and language speaking black holes are once again getting close scrutiny, especially since various IC agency chiefs have been scolded by both White House and congressional officials.

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