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Monday, August 31, 2009

Let the CIA outsource!

The Washington Times has a lengthy exclusive in Monday's editions about how eight years after 9/11, the CIA does not have sufficient translators from such languages and dialects as Hindi, Urdu, Farsi, Arabic, Pashto, Dari and Kurdish. The reason for the shortage of translators is apparently that the CIA - which has been bashed enough over the past week - did not make knowledge of foreign languages a requirement for promotion. Not surprisingly, what the agency has found is that when they find someone who is proficient in a necessary language, more often than not they cannot get security clearance. Because of that, the CIA has been using outside contractors to translate, and even so, many wiretapped conversations take several days to translate.

The article is lengthy so I will not excerpt it, but I have four comments to make. First, the article implies that the problem is that they cannot find native level speakers in these languages - as if the translators must speak these languages as their first language in order to be effective. In my experience, this is not true. I translate professionally from Hebrew to English, English being my native language, and Hebrew being a language I speak well. I do not translate from English to Hebrew. It seems to me that what the CIA ought to be looking for is native English speakers who speak the language well, and not native speakers of those languages who are more likely to have problematic relatives (yes, that's the article's implication) who will blow their security clearances. People with an aptitude for languages can be trained to speak a foreign language.

Second, the article talks about the use of private contractors. If there is such an issue with security clearances, how are the private contractors passing? Why can they pass when CIA employees cannot pass?

Third, the diplomatic corps may have people who speak these languages. For example, many people in the diplomatic corps speak Arabic. Why not give incentives to people to transfer from the diplomatic corps to the CIA where they are needed?

Finally, if you're going to use private contractors, why not consider outsourcing to friendly countries who have native speakers? For example, Israel has native Arabic, Farsi and Kurdish speakers by the dozens - mostly people who were born in those countries and their descendants (my barber talks to his father in Farsi all the time, even though I don't believe the barber has ever lived in Iran). I'm sure India has some people who speak the Pakistani dialects and possibly the Afghan ones as well. And I can guarantee you that none of those people sympathize with al-Qaeda.

Read the whole thing. It's appalling how screwed up America's intelligence services are eight years after 9/11. What could go wrong?


Reader Gershon D. comments:
My firm's software does not allow me to comment, but you should be aware that dozens of Syrian Jews from right here in Brooklyn were barred from translation jobs with the unspoken reason that they were Jewish.


At 8:57 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

Its very simple, Carl - America does not want to outsource to Jews.


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