FBI short on Arabic speakers

Of 12,000 Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, only 33 have even a limited proficiency in the Arabic language, hampering the bureau’s ability to investigate terrorism.

FBI statistics show the bureau has 129 agents who know at least one Arabic word, 33 of whom scored at a limited proficiency or above on a standardized Arabic language test.

Instead of having Arabic speakers conduct investigations, the FBI relies on a vastly enlarged pool of linguists, who are not special agents, who translate as necessary. But counterterrorism agents say that this slows down and hampers investigations.

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.” — Washington Post

Security concerns also get in the way. FBI agents must be U.S. citizens, and the required background check is much more difficult to pass for those who have friends or relatives living overseas — especially in the Middle East.

Special Agent Bassem Youssef, who sued the Justice Department saying that he was passed over for promotions in favor of people with less ability and experience, is one of only a few people with advanced Arabic proficiency, according to the Post. The FBI seems to prefer people with “leadership ability” even without experience in the ranks of counterterrorism.

How do you expect the FBI to investigate people in an Arabic-speaking community when it doesn’t have anybody who can actually speak the language?

“There is no widespread effort to understand radical Islam, read the literature, understand what their plan is or what their motivations are,” writes counterterrorism expert Douglas Farah. “The fundamental flaw is an ongoing inability or unwillingness to identify the enemy as Islamist who want to kill us, and deal with that enemy for what it is — a sophisticated, multi-pronged, coherent group that constantly runs intelligence, counterintelligence and propaganda operations.”

One thought on “FBI short on Arabic speakers

  • November 6, 2006 at 6:59 pm
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