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CIA Announces Push to Improve Agency's Language Proficiency

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 30, 2009

Five years after it was faulted by the 9/11 Commission for inadequate language skills among its employees, the CIA yesterday launched an ambitious program to double the number of analysts proficient in languages deemed critical in the fight against America's enemies.

The new initiative, announced by CIA Director Leon Panetta, was an acknowledgment of the agency's slow progress in adding employees fluent in languages such as Arabic, Farsi and Urdu.

"To gather intelligence and understand a complex world, CIA must have more officers who read, speak, and understand foreign languages," Panetta said in a message sent to employees.

Panetta unveiled plans for recruiting more officers fluent in foreign languages and for retraining thousands of current employees, using the agency's in-house "CIA University." The agency will offer night classes and online training, and will enable new recruits to study languages while awaiting security clearance, he said.

In addition to doubling the number of officers competent in certain "mission-critical" languages, the agency seeks to increase by 50 percent the number of analysts fluent in the dialect of the culture or region to which they are assigned, Panetta said.

The CIA recently reported that a small fraction of its overall workforce -- about 13 percent -- is fluent in a second language. Among officers of the agency's National Clandestine Service, to which most foreign-deployed officers are assigned, the figure is about 30 percent.

The 9/11 Commission identified a lack of skilled translators as a factor in the U.S. government's failure to prevent the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The commission found that intercepted communications that could have alerted U.S. officials to the plot were missed because they were not translated until days after the attack.

Amy Zegart, an expert on intelligence reform and an associate professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, said the foreign-language deficit is a government-wide problem that reflects flaws in the security-clearance process. Often, CIA job applicants who are fluent in key languages have been turned away because they have relatives living in countries where terrorists are known to operate, she said. Such family ties can result in the candidate being denied a security clearance needed for the job.

"You can't hire the right people until you change the security-clearance rules," Zegart said.

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