America’s spies and a language crisis
“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.”
DIFFICULT SECURITY CLEARANCE
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.
You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com