America’s spies and a language crisis

July 2, 2009

Bernd Debusmann— Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. —

“There is a great deal about Iran that we do not know…The United States lacks critical information needed for analysts to make many of their judgments with confidence about Iran.”

That was the verdict of a Congressional committee on U.S. intelligence policy two years ago. How valid it still is was highlighted by Iran’s June elections and their turbulent aftermath.

By most accounts, the huge margin of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s victory, the equally huge demonstrations of Iranians crying fraud, and their brutal repression all came as surprises to U.S. intelligence and foreign policy experts.

The reasons for America’s problems of coming to grips with Iran are manifold: a 30-year absence of diplomats on the ground, an opaque political system difficult to penetrate, wishful thinking, a perennial temptation to “mirror-image,” that is to expect others to think and behave like yourself. Last but not
least: an acute shortage of Farsi-speaking analysts and agents.

The number of people in the sprawling U.S. intelligence community, 16 separate agencies with more than 100,000 employees, who speak Iran’s language is classified, as is the number of fluent Arabic and Pashto speakers. (The State Department says it has 22 foreign service officers out of 6,500 who are fluent in Farsi.)

The problem is not new and it contributed to the notorious misjudgments of the situation in Iran by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency in 1978, a few months before the Islamic revolution that sent the Shah fleeing into exile.

Said the CIA: “Iran is not a revolutionary state or even pre-revolutionary state.” Echoed the DIA: The Shah “is expected to remain actively involved in power over the next 10 years.”

There have been no CIA or DIA predictions of how long Ahmedinejad will stay in power but there have been public pledges to address the language deficit.

Its overall scale was thrown into sharp focus by the government’s disclosure, long after the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, that it had a 123,000-hour backlog of taped message traffic in Middle Eastern languages.

America’s intelligence czar, Dennis Blair, says that a “lack of language-qualified personnel has been a perennial problem for the Intelligence Community.”

Leon Panetta, President Barack Obama’s choice as CIA chief, has repeatedly spoken of the need for officers who “read, speak and understand foreign languages.”

President George W. Bush two years ago announced a National Security Language Initiative to “dramatically increase” the number of Americans learning, speaking, and teaching “critical need” foreign languages. That was followed by a five-year Strategic Human Capital Plan that pinpointed part of what is one of the biggest problems: “non-U.S. citizens who cannot meet our security requirements.”


That phrase leaves out the huge pool of American citizens who are native speakers of Farsi, Arabic and other languages deemed critical for gaining a better understanding of  opaque countries like Iran or penetrating al Qaeda and its affiliates.

The vetting process for a security clearance is almost as high a barrier for them as for non-citizens. For decades, dual citizenship and having close non-citizen family members were grounds for automatic disqualification from jobs that required a security clearance.

That changed last October with a new directive that allows exceptions to be granted on a case-by-case basis when there is a “compelling need that is based upon specific national security

That requirement  is hard to meet for first-generation Americans who have close relatives living in Middle Eastern countries. The government fears they could be subject to blackmail or family pressure.

Added to this, there is “an underlying mistrust of Muslim Americans or Arab Americans in the national security area,” according to Frederick P. Hitz, a former inspector general of the CIA. In a recent book (Why Spy? Espionage in an Age of Uncertainty), Hitz termed this mistrust “short-sighted and a return to the attitude that enabled the United States to intern Japanese Americans during World War II.”

While the intelligence agencies, in the words of  Dennis Blair,  “continue to wrestle with clearing people who are native speakers of critical languages,”  the vetting process can take a year or more, somewhat of a disincentive even for potential recruits brimming with patriotic spirit.

The language deficit is so serious that some in the intelligence community think addressing it requires an effort as sweeping as the programs that were put into place after the Russians launched the first earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik, in 1957 and the U.S. realized how far behind it was in space technology.

Sputnik spurred a major push to get young Americans to study mathematics, physics and Russian.

This is not likely to happen.

Given the time it takes to learn difficult languages, senior intelligence officials say the immediate emphasis is on drawing recruits from first-generation citizens.

It’s a work in progress and progress is slow. Which begs the question whether America’s intelligence services are as omniscient and omnipotent as Washington’s adversaries make them out to be.

Iran’s government saw the hand of the CIA behind the street protests and violence that followed Ahmedinejad’s June 12 elections. Perhaps it was. But a deep study of the Iran by one of America’s most respected think tanks makes one wonder.

Commissioned by the U.S. Air Force and released by the RAND Corporation a few weeks before the elections, the 230-page study said America’s understanding of Iran’s complex political landscape was so limited that attempts to foment internal unrest were likely to be unsuccessful.

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This comes as no surprise to me. I lived in Baghdad for 21 years as an American. I learned how to read write and speak in Arabic (Baghdad dialect). I understand how Iragis think and behave. On three separate occasions, I offered my services to those clowns at Langley Virginia. Only, to be turned down three times.
Reason: You have an Iraqi father.

Ok, lots of luck.

Posted by SRK | Report as abusive

Hi Bernd

Two points:

1) Iran isn’t actually a problem. It’s only perceived as one because it doesn’t fall into line. (If you’re worried about missiles, they won’t come your way. Chances are, they won’t even go anywhere. Note also, when there really are big worries it’s always political to have a decoy.)

2) WTR the election, I am sorry ’bout the way it went but I don’t think it was likely to be bent. If there was the big turnout (no-one contradicts this), the “poor” would have voted for Amanjiabad because he’d been round campaigning among them with hand-outs. Meanwhile, western journos were talking to educated English speaking voters and reported that there was solid support for Mousavi. No contradictions, just there are more poor than there are students.

Posted by Malc cochran | Report as abusive

who said the CIA was not putting in an effort to understand iran. did you forget the fact that Bush commited $400 million dollars to the CIA to cause caos in iran. some of the actions that we saw during the protests were just as much connected to the CIA< Mossad, and MI6 as they were with the iranian regime. there were something that took place that should be looked into further. like the suicide boming attempt at khomeni’s shrine? since when do iranians carry out suicide bombings? and this tragic murder of neda, why is that if the government wanted to shoot its own people by randomly firing on people that we only had only 1 murder carried out in this manner. if they were randomly firing on people, we would have seen alot more people killed. we also have to look at the fact that out of 20 people killed, 8 of them were policemen.

Posted by sidney | Report as abusive

I would think after decades of operation such agencies would already have procedures in place to select suitable agents and monitor them. I don’t personally know of a way to ensure that only trustworthy people occupy sensitive positions. But I think even the most dedicated agent can have problems or issues with his employer and society in general. To me, using an analogy, it is reasonable for a religious person to question the existence of God or share grievances with God. It would not be logical to screen out viable candidates on some unrealistic perception of a perfect agent.

Well, incase somehow the secret service has forgotten how to operate, essentially just hire a bunch of people for lowly administrative positions. Promote those that do their job well. Approach those that seem unusually dedicated to their work to higher levels of confidentiality. I believe at the heart of every good agent is a dedicated civil servant.

Posted by Don | Report as abusive

I am a US Chinese- and Japanese-speaking linguist. I have an MA in international policy, but I was not eligible for the Foreign Service because I am gay. That’s changed, but gay people are still decidedly second-class citizens in government work. I wouldn’t work for the government under any circumstances. It’s not my interests they are defending, that’s for sure.

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

Real issue at hand is not lack of suitably qualified and trustworthy agents to do an acceptable job for the intelligence agencies in the USA. Its a lot more to do with providing a sensible explanation for US foreign policy failure on the Iranian front. In fact, more the US is able to tie around the Iranian government to settle their house, more it sees the benefits accruing on the real front: Afganistan. Its a time buy out exercise so as to engulf Iranians on both sides of the border and then dictate terms for world trade.
All that’s missing at the moment is a legitimate looking, strong military presence on Afganistan-Iran border for the now relieved, returning troops from Iraq interiors. At the core of all this exercise lies the dreaded outcome that no western country wants: opening of land based trade lines between India, middle east and China. Helping out Pakistan/Afganistan to control their terrorism opposing forces is only a ploy to gain a foothold in both countries so as to make sure the trade lines stay closed for as long as possible.

Posted by Kanwal Chopra | Report as abusive

When are the media’s “experts” ever going to actually study history and get their facts correct? This is 68% nonsense and 32% disinformation.

Posted by Jon Vaughn | Report as abusive

This is a problem that goes beyond the intelligence community, though it must be something of an embarrassment that agencies spending more than a combined $1 billion a week (sic) on stealing and analyzing secrets can’t somehow figure out how to cut through the red tape of the security clearances.

The deeper problem is an American educational system which neglects language studies, gives little prestige to language teachers, and is based on the assumption there’s no need for students to learn foreign languages because most of the world is learning English.

Posted by Elvira | Report as abusive

I’m suprised that the USA has such a problem in appreciating contemporary Iran. Both countries have a strong religious fundamentalist core after all!
Perhaps the problem is that the ruling secular liberal establishment in the USA is so fanatical (as it appears to an outsider) in its ideological opposition to its own fundamentalists, its hardly suprising that it fails miserably to understand the attitude of a country ruled by them.

Maybe the USG needs to find a few ambassadors outside the East Coast political cliques, some who have a more open and empathetic attitude to the strong religious cultures of the Middle East.

When we rather reluctantly ran most of the Middle East in the 30’s with a few squadrons of clapped out bi-planes, we had a thing called ‘Arabists\'(and an educated preference for brains rather than $billions). Unfortunately US ‘Arabism’ appears to have been domestically annihilated by its peculiarly absolute adherence to the cause of anti-Arab ‘Zionism’- and then you act all suprised at your diplomats and international institutions not understanding Arab and Persian perspectives…

I always thought the USG ran an intelligent self interested 30 year forward looking oil/economic based strategic foreign policy, but having spent $trillions paying for the construction in the Middle East of an entire modern state in the resource/oil free E. Meditteranean littoral, whilst managing at the same time to have virtually no diplomatic expertise available in Persia, and only recently in Iraq and Saudi… I’m beginning to wonder.

Posted by Rhoops | Report as abusive

Reading sydney’s response, I must conclude that the Iranians are far better at training their regime-sponsored bloggers to learn English, than what the post suggests about CIA.

Seriously, the Mossad? Somebody has forgot that Israel is less than New-Jersey sized country with 7 million population, and quite a handful of countries trying to wipe it off the map. No, I don’t think the Mossad can cause civil unrest in a 67 million people large Islamic theocracy.

Oh, and in English, they start the first letters in names in uppercase, sydney.

Posted by Roman | Report as abusive


At last someone spoke about the process and confusion of many Linguist face when they apply a linguist position at Fed/contract. You see, I am 1st generation Somali Linquist. I’ve been told that I did not pass the poly test due to drug related question. I was surprised when the examiner insisted me to admit something I’ve never done it. Finally, I told him – If my answer is not enough to you and your machine then my services are no good to you.

There are cultural and attitude problem to those examiners as well. I can not speak for others but my experience taught me not to Volunteer my services when it is not…….

It is not like I needed the job but I wanted to give back something to this great country of mine who have give me everything I have.

Anyway, thanks for speaking out this problems.

Posted by Al Mohd | Report as abusive

Why Americans cannot make the connection between knowing foreign languages and having better relations with people who speak those languages I simply cannot fathom. Cameron University has one of the few Persian/Farsi (plus Dari and Tajik) programs in the country, but the enrollment is still small (and one of the US Army’s largest posts, Fort Sill, borders Lawton on the north.) Arabic is growing on our campus, but Russian isn’t where it should be. No surprise, really. After the Cold War ended, who needed to speak Russian?

Posted by George Edward Stanley | Report as abusive

The “brutal repression” part took me back to the good old days of Kent State, 4 dead, and Jackson State, 2 dead. What was the title of Gore Vidal’s book?, oh ya, United States of Amnesia.

Posted by desoto | Report as abusive

To even consider that Iran is this extremely elusive, secret, and somehow complex entity is totally absurd at best. American intelligence simply does not have the prowess to enter that realm of understanding with any certainty of accomplishing anything worthwhile. Look at the alleged weapons of mass destruction saga that the CIA said Iraq had by the hundreds. Hmm, none were found, so they quickly stated that the weapons must have been transported to Syria, yet there was absolutely no evidence of such activity. What we have is just another aspect of the poor American work ethic at work in the federal government. Iran is no match for any modern country in any form – military, education, government, etc. Speaking the language is simply a matter of schooling.

Posted by Frank | Report as abusive

Iran is not a complicated country and the Persian Culture is pretty much the same as it has been for many centuries.
When the world realises that Iranians are Persian and not Arabs that may start to change the way people view Iran.

Persian Culture is one of tolerance and respect for other cultures, languages and beliefs.

Cyrus the Great was a lover of Culture and respected the Gods of other Nations. He showed great respect for the God of the Jews, releasing the Jews from captivity in Babylon in 539 BCE.

Israel owes a lot to the Persian King Cyrus, and many Jews respect and understand this fact.

I have traveled to Iran many times and have had many conversations with people from various walks of life. They all have one thing in common, they are not happy with the way things are in Iran.

The structure of the Persian language is full of gracious speach and salutations which when spoken to me In Tehran, Ehsfahan and Shiraz touched my heart.

I am British. All my family are British, I have no blood ties with Iran however if there is one culture the human race should be proud of it is Persians.

When you want to engage a child in conversation the best way is to get down on their level so as not to intimidate them.
The same is with cultures, learn to interact and respect the differences without dictating and dominating, whatever needs to be said will be accepted more readily.

A few weeks ago a few Somali men were talking near an area where i happened to be. some people were intimidated by them. One caught my eye and i smiled, he smiled back and i asked him where was he from. I asked him about Somalia and his family left behind. I learnt more about Somalia in five minutes than ever before. Also i broke down a barrier. I even could disagree on many points respectfully regarding the Koran and he respected my view.
Its all about respect.
Good intelliogence is born from respect.

Posted by terrance | Report as abusive