WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Despite intense focus on Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East in the last decade, U.S. spy agencies are still lacking in language skills needed to talk to locals, translate intercepted intelligence and analyze data, according to top intelligence officials.
The September 11, 2001, attacks prompted a major push for foreign language skills to track militants and trends in parts of the world that were not a Cold War priority.
But intelligence agencies have had to face the reality that the languages they need cannot be taught quickly, the street slang U.S. operatives and analysts require is not easy, and security concerns make the clearance process slow-going.
As recently as 2008 and 2009, intelligence officials were still issuing new directives and programs in the hopes of ramping up language capability.
"Language will continue to be a challenge for us," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said at a congressional hearing last week.
"It's something we're working at, and will continue to do so, but we're probably not where we want to be," he said.
The U.S. government needs speakers of Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Dari, Urdu, and other "exotic" languages which are more difficult for English-speakers to learn.
"If you hark back to the Cold War days, it was much easier for us to raise and have a cadre of highly qualified linguists say in Russian and East European languages which comes to our people much more naturally than to these Mideast languages," Clapper said.
The spy agencies will not publicly disclose the number of employees with language skills. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) says Arabic speaking capability increased throughout the intelligence community about three-fold over 10 years and Afghanistan-Pakistan language capability -- including Baluchi, Dari, Kirghiz, Pashto, Punjabi, Tajik, Urdu, and Uzbek -- increased by 30 times from before the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Intelligence agencies require more than just a perfunctory grasp to understand cultural meanings and different dialects.
"In these very difficult terrorism targets, there's obviously this yearning for native speakers," said Ellen Laipson, president of the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank. "Some of the people you're trying to track are not themselves highly educated so they use a lot of slang, and it's a higher standard than if you were trying to monitor or interact with very elite foreign ministry people of a developed country."
U.S. spy agencies are reaching out to first- and second-generation Americans whose heritage would provide the language and cultural understanding quicker than trying to teach someone from scratch.
But they can face difficulties getting through the strict security clearance process because of family ties back in their country of heritage.
Intelligence officials say they are trying to change that. ODNI issued a directive in 2008 to make it easier to hire first- and second-generation Americans whose heritage is from countries that can raise potential security issues.
ODNI also started a Heritage Council to reach out to Americans of Pakistani, Arab and Somali descent among others.
The CIA has run television ads geared toward recruiting from the Arab-American and Iranian-American communities. And it says a higher percentage of CIA officers are studying Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, Farsi, Russian, Korean, and Chinese.
"The CIA is looking to hire first- and second-generation Americans -- people who know the cultures and speak the languages of the world in which we operate," CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "We work very hard to dispel the myth that they can't get a security clearance if they have spent time overseas or have relatives abroad."
But, Harf said, it takes time. "For example, on 9/11, few American universities had world-class Arabic language programs. That's changed now, in the same way that the country mobilized to teach large numbers of students Russian during the Cold War," she said.
Former CIA Director Leon Panetta made improving language proficiency a top priority in 2009 with a five-year plan to sharply increase those skills, including by tying promotions to senior ranks to language ability.
Language experts say the root of the problem lies in an American education system that does not emphasize learning foreign languages early on the way European schools do.
The federal government uses a language scale of zero to five to judge proficiency, where zero is none and five is an educated native speaker.
"Up until now basically everybody has been pretty content to get twos, which is basic communication skills. The intelligence community really needs three, three-plus and fours," said Richard Brecht, executive director of the University of Maryland Center for Advanced Study of Language.
The center was founded in 2003 and funded by the Defense Department to conduct research to improve language capability in the intelligence community.
About 50 million people in the United States speak a language other than English at home, which is an "immense national language resource," Brecht said.
But the spy agencies have to compete with the private sector which is also seeking employees with language skills.
"They are wanted by a lot of different organizations. Not only in government but outside of government too. So it's a very competitive environment," said Michael Birmingham, ODNI spokesman.
Editing by Warren Strobel and Mohammad Zargham