September 22, 2011

Article: U.S. Spy Agencies Struggle with Post-9/11 Languages


U.S. spy agencies struggle with post-9/11 languages
By Tabassum Zakaria
September 19, 2011

Despite intense focus on Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East in the last decade, U.S. spy agencies are still lacking in language skills needed to talk to locals, translate intercepted intelligence and analyze data, according to top intelligence officials.

The September 11, 2001, attacks prompted a major push for foreign language skills to track militants and trends in parts of the world that were not a Cold War priority.

But intelligence agencies have had to face the reality that the languages they need cannot be taught quickly, the street slang U.S. operatives and analysts require is not easy, and security concerns make the clearance process slow-going.

Intelligence agencies require more than just a perfunctory grasp to understand cultural meanings and different dialects.

"In these very difficult terrorism targets, there's obviously this yearning for native speakers," said Ellen Laipson, president of the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank. "Some of the people you're trying to track are not themselves highly educated so they use a lot of slang, and it's a higher standard than if you were trying to monitor or interact with very elite foreign ministry people of a developed country."

U.S. spy agencies are reaching out to first- and second-generation Americans whose heritage would provide the language and cultural understanding quicker than trying to teach someone from scratch.

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