Secrecy News

DNI Seeks to Bolster IC Foreign Language Capability

The Director of National Intelligence issued a new directive that is intended to improve foreign language skills throughout the U.S. intelligence community.

“Foreign language capabilities are essential to the performance of intelligence missions and operations,” the May 2012 directive notes.

Foreign language competence for intelligence purposes extends well beyond mastery of a common vocabulary or the ability to translate a newspaper article.

“Foreign language capabilities include a broad range of language proficiency skills and other abilities, such as cultural awareness and understanding, regional expertise, skill in translation and interpretation, and knowledge of the scientific and technical vocabularies of critical foreign languages,” the directive says.

“This Directive establishes an integrated approach to develop, maintain, and improve foreign language capabilities across the Intelligence Community (IC).” See Intelligence Community Directive 630, “Intelligence Community Foreign Language Capability,” May 14, 2012.

Shortfalls in foreign language abilities are a recurring problem in U.S. intelligence agencies.

“U.S. intelligence efforts are complicated by unfilled requirements for foreign language expertise,” according to the Congressional Research Service.

“A major constraint on HUMINT collection is the availability of personnel trained in appropriate languages. Cold War efforts required a supply of linguists in a relatively finite set of foreign languages, but the intelligence community now needs experts in a wider range of more obscure languages and dialects,” wrote CRS specialist Richard A. Best, Jr. last year.

2 thoughts on “DNI Seeks to Bolster IC Foreign Language Capability

  1. This is probably a “long-overdue” course of action. I had a friend, who due to the course of his U.S. military duty assignment, in the early 1960’s…used playing the violin and speaking Romani, as part of his cover in the “eastern bloc” of Europe. Apparently, when he went “missing” (AWOL), there was no one in our CIA or military intelligence who spoke Romani, at that time. This made ascertaining what happened to him, and where he went, somewhat of a challenge.
    In the mid 1970’s, I learned the Seattle, Washington school district had almost 400 children in their district whose primary language was Romani, and they found “translators” to encourage the children whose culture was not based upon a Written Language, or formal education, to stay in school….

  2. The military branches have always experienced a lack of linguistic ability, and they always will. It isn’t enough to simply shoot someone through a school or two and have a proficient, fluent linguist come out the other side. It takes way too long for an individual to become proficient in the mastery of a language. The Intelligence Community faces the same problem. The time it takes to be a quality linguist is essentially a full time job, and the IC doesn’t want to pay analysts to spend all their time doing language training. While there are plenty of civilian linguists, the vast majority of folks in the IC (particularly outside of northern VA/southern MD) are military. The military, of course, wants their people doing anything other than language training, as there is no value in it, from the unit’s perspective.
    Worse than the lack of linguistic capability, however, is the gross mismanagement of existing linguistic capability inside of the IC, paticularly where military personnel are concerned. There are hundreds of linguists of all ranks inside the IC who have tremendous language capability, receive proficiency pay, and do absolutely nothing with their language. As for the military, sheer ineptitude commonly allows a command of 400 or so trained linguists to only have ~200 of those personnel actually using their language skills, with the rest lost to admin duties and other command/military requirements.
    In addition to mismanagement, there exists an institutional culture (bureaucratically reinforced by real, organizational requirements) in Army’s TRADOC, Navy’s Foreign Language Office, etc which promotes fundamental misperceptions of what a professionalized linguist is and how to train one. In short, the military branches want a professionalized linguistic capability, but the key decision makers (who are and always will be by definition non-intelligence types – either unrestricted line officers in the Navy or combat arms officers in the Army) don’t understand what it takes to produce it. Those that do understand aren’t willing to sacrifice the time and money required, as a linguist’s mission is simply not viewed by those key decision makers as sufficiently beneficial when assessed next to a new weapon system or other training. In the end, they simply aren’t willing to make the investment, as their “vision”, which developed inside a different warfighting context and culture, is unable to see a lucrative payoff. Until this changes, we will likely see articles such as the one above every few years, when we are bit by demand, in size or content, for a capability our static language delivery pipelines don’t contain.

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