Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON – As U.S. intelligence agencies scramble to attract more Arabic-speaking spies, they are meeting obstacles that will take them years to overcome, terrorism and Arabic language experts say.
Besides the inherent difficulty of the language, hurdles include competition from companies offering bigger salaries to proficient speakers and a background clearance process that weeds out or scares away some would-be recruits.
Mitchell Reiss, the State Department’s former director of policy planning, said the problems undermine U.S. efforts to win the «war of ideas» in the Muslim world, a victory needed to prevail over al-Qaida.
«Federal support for language training and expertise» – especially Arabic – «is inexcusably low,» said Reiss, who is now vice provost at the College of William & Mary, at a September conference on terrorism.
Since 9/11, Congress and the Bush administration have started several scholarship programs and other initiatives for training in Arabic and such critical languages as Pashto, Dari and Farsi. Though they won’t reveal numbers, spy agency officials say they’re making progress. At the CIA, students of Arabic are put through an intensive 88-week course that seeks to integrate standard classroom learning with real-world situations.
Similar techniques are used at the Pentagon’s Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., which teaches the military and FBI. About one-third of the institute’s 3,000 students are studying Arabic.
Gerald Lampe, president of the American Association of Teachers of Arabic, said such efforts are impressive. Nevertheless, he said, when it comes to getting large numbers of spies to become fluent, «We still have a ways to go.»
«It will take us 10 to 15 years to be really good at this,» agreed University of Georgia political scientist Loch Johnson, author of several books on intelligence and a former consultant to the National Security Council and other agencies.
Colleges, meanwhile, turn out relatively few Arabic speakers. The most recent statistics available show 10,584 college students studying Arabic in 2002 – double the number four years earlier but less than 1 percent of total U.S. foreign language enrollment. And foreign language enrollment overall has fallen, from 16 percent of students in 1960 to 8 percent in 2002, according to the American Council on Education.
«If that’s true, where is the intelligence community supposed to be getting linguists from?» asked Mark Lowenthal, who worked on the issue at the CIA before leaving this year to run a consulting firm in Arlington, Va.
A growing number of high schools, including some in the Washington, D.C., and Detroit areas, are teaching Arabic. But experts said federal funding for a wider-ranging initiative has lagged. Arabic differs sharply from English in everything from grammar to vocal sounds to the writing system.
Learning the language is complicated by its myriad forms and dialects, with differences so vast that Salam Al-Maryati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, said half-jokingly, «I’m an Iraqi, and I can’t understand Egyptians.»
Spy agencies teach Modern Standard Arabic, the form used by government officials and the news media.
But «you can’t learn Modern Standard Arabic and just drop into a country and know what people are saying,» said Rebecca Givner-Forbes, an Arabic-speaking analyst for the Terrorism Research Center, a private company in Arlington, Va.
The best way to learn dialects, experts say, is to visit countries where they are spoken. But travel requires time and money – and involves «the places where the FBI and CIA and other agencies that require a security clearance probably don’t want you to go,» Givner-Forbes said.
After studying Arabic at Georgetown University, Givner-Forbes said she spent thousands of dollars visiting Egypt, Syria and other Middle East countries to become fluent, hiring a daily tutor at one point. But when she talked about a job with the National Security Agency, the spy world’s electronic eavesdropping arm, the offer came in at $32,000, with no promise of a raise for three years.
In the private sector, where linguists are in demand for government contract work, salaries for all languages average around $46,000 for women and $50,000 for men, varying with level of security clearance, according to a survey last year by IntelligenceCareers.com, a private jobs database. Top salaries in the survey were $92,000 for women to $150,000 for men.