FBI Agents Still Lacking Arabic Skills

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Five years after Arab terrorists attacked the United States, only 33 FBI agents have even a limited proficiency in Arabic, and none of them work in the sections of the bureau that coordinate investigations of international terrorism, according to new FBI statistics.

Counting agents who know only a handful of Arabic words -- including those who scored zero on a standard proficiency test -- just 1 percent of the FBI's 12,000 agents have any familiarity with the language, the statistics show.

The numbers reflect the FBI's continued struggle to attract employees who speak Arabic, Urdu, Farsi and other languages of the Middle East and South Asia, even as the bureau leads a fight against terrorist groups primarily centered in those parts of the world. The same challenge is facing the CIA and other agencies as the government competes with the private sector for a limited number of applicants with foreign-language proficiency, according to U.S. officials and experts.

The shortage of agents with foreign-language skills also shows the extent to which the FBI has focused on translators since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, in part because officials believe it is more valuable to have specially trained linguists.

In a recent deposition filed in an employee lawsuit, a senior FBI official testified that the bureau's two International Terrorism Operations Sections (ITOS) do not require any agents to know Arabic, even though the sections coordinate all foreign terrorism investigations. Only four agents in ITOS have any familiarity with Arabic, and none of them are ranked above elementary proficiency, documents show.

"There are no agent positions, at any level, in either ITOS I or II that utilize the Arabic language as part of their ITOS duties or responsibilities," Michael J. Heimbach, head of ITOS I, testified in his deposition. ". . . As such, knowledge of the Arabic language is not a skill set utilized by either ITOS I or II."

FBI officials said it is not crucial for agents working in the ITOS sections to know Arabic or other foreign languages, because they rely primarily on documents or interviews already translated by FBI linguists. As for agents in the field in the United States or overseas, FBI officials say translators are readily available when needed by investigators, usually within 24 hours.

But Daniel Byman, a Georgetown University associate professor who heads the school's Security Studies Program, said the FBI's continuing failure to attract Arabic-speaking agents is "a serious problem" that hurts the bureau's relations with immigrant communities and makes it more difficult to gather intelligence on extremist groups.

"With any new immigrant communities, they need these language skills, whether it's Vietnamese or Pakistani or Arabic," Byman said. "It also often gives you extra cultural knowledge and sensitivity. It makes you more sensitive to nuance, which is what investigations are often all about."

Margaret Gulotta, chief of the FBI's language services section, said in an interview that the bureau has made significant progress since 9/11 in increasing the number of translators who speak Arabic and other foreign languages. The number of translators proficient in Arabic has grown from 70 in September 2001 to 269 as of July -- an increase of nearly 300 percent -- while the overall number of linguists has nearly doubled.

The FBI also has a "very aggressive training program" of foreign-language instruction for agents and other programs that make it easier to hire candidates with foreign-language ability, Gulotta said. In fiscal 2005, she said, more than 1,600 agents took classes.

"Do we need more Arabic-speaking agents? By all means we want more Arabic-speaking agents," Gulotta said. "But admittedly it's a very difficult group of people to recruit and hire. . . . We've been a lot more successful in recruiting and hiring contract linguists and language specialists."

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