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FBI Agents Still Lacking Arabic Skills

More than 1,400 agents have at least a limited working proficiency in a foreign language, including nearly 900 who speak Spanish. Other languages include Russian, Farsi, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese, the FBI said.

Gulotta and other officials said several factors limit the number of foreign speakers who can become agents at the FBI. Special agents, for example, must be U.S. citizens. They also must undergo background checks that are much more difficult to pass if the candidate has relatives or friends overseas.

"It is easier to get a security clearance if you don't have any interaction with foreigners, which is not what you want if you want better interaction with foreigners," Byman said.

Some of the new information about language abilities at the FBI has emerged in connection with a lawsuit by one of the FBI's highest-ranking Arabic speakers, Special Agent Bassem Youssef, who sued the Justice Department and the bureau alleging retaliation after he complained that he was cut out of terrorism cases after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Youssef, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Egypt, is one of only six FBI agents who scored a 4 for "advanced professional proficiency" in Arabic on standardized speaking tests administered by the Interagency Language Roundtable for federal agencies.

Youssef's attorney, Stephen M. Kohn, said the statistics indicate that most FBI agents have no way to gauge the accuracy of translated materials and must rely on linguists or other third parties for their information.

"How do you fight a war with that kind of disadvantage?" Kohn asked.

Gulotta and other experts note that the FBI is not alone in its struggle to attract qualified job candidates who speak Arabic or other foreign languages.

A study released last week, for example, found that three terrorists housed at a federal prison in Colorado were able to send more than 90 letters to fellow extremists overseas, in part because the prison did not have enough qualified language translators to understand what was happening.

The Bush administration early this year unveiled a "National Security Language Initiative" aimed at encouraging more instruction in "critical" languages in elementary schools, secondary schools and universities.

The lack of such programs hurts "national security, diplomacy, law enforcement [and] intelligence communities," said a fact sheet accompanying the initiative's launch.

Steve Ackley, director of communications for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in Alexandria, said the FBI and other agencies are faced with a serious challenge, because language instruction is so undervalued in U.S. schools.

"American society in general does not put a huge premium or value on multilingualism," Ackley said. "Until the general public . . . recognizes that this is an area that the government in general and agencies like the FBI and CIA have to invest in, this is not a problem that's going to get better."

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