Tongue Tied

By Thomas Duffy / July 27, 2009 at 5:00 AM

Even though the United States military is involved in two active wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the U.S. intelligence community is tracking terrorists throughout the Middle East and South Asia, the number of foreign language-speaking professionals involved in these pursuits is woefully inadequate, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said last week.

In its fiscal year 2010 authorization report released last week, the committee laments that five years after Congress asked the director of national intelligence to identify foreign language requirements of the intelligence community and produce a plan to meet those needs, neither request has been met.

The committee added:

Furthermore, individual agency and military service programs aimed at creating strategies to improve foreign language programs are inconsistent across the Intelligence Community. NSA has near-real-time visibility of its language capable employees and hires and trains according to actual needs, but most other Intelligence Community agencies have no similar capability. The new Director of the CIA recently announced a major overhaul of the CIA’s foreign language hiring, training, maintenance, and use policies which should eventually result in a more language capable workforce, but other agencies have not been similarly aggressive. DIA continues to suffer from chronic shortages of language-capable employees, but has not developed a strategy for improvement. To explain their failure to redress critical gaps in national security foreign language capacity, agencies point to their lack of control over clearance processes, shallow hiring pools, the inability to allocate time to training, insufficient resources, and, in some cases, a dearth of qualified instructors. Yet, the United States is one of the most polyglot of developed countries -- more than one in five Americans speak a language other than English in the home and more than a million citizens are of Middle East or South Asian descent.

The committee's answer? It now wants the comprehensive strategy sent to Congress by the end of this year.

The Defense Department has taken steps to boost the military’s foreign-language prowess and cultural competencies -- skills that save lives on the battlefield -- but different goals and approaches are stalling the effort, another congressional committee warned in a study that Inside the Pentagon reported on last November:

The services’ strategies for cultivating language and cultural skills should better align with the department’s for creating foundational language and cultural expertise, the House Armed Services oversight and investigations subcommittee states in its Nov. 20 report, “Building Language Skills and Cultural Competencies in the Military: DOD’s Challenge in Today’s Educational Environment.”

The services are more concerned with developing a culturally aware force than a linguistically capable one, the report states.

“We will begin to believe that ‘transformation,’ to use the department’s word, has occurred when, for example, language and cultural capabilities play a greater role in promotions, when unit readiness measures these skills, and when training in these skills takes place as early as recruit training alongside traditional warfighting skills, such as qualifying on the rifle range,” the lawmakers assert.