The U.S. military and all of our intelligence services are facing a shortage of Arabic linguists – and have been for some time. In 2003, for example (two years after September 11th, for the math impaired), the State Department had only 60 employees fluent in Arabic and only five with skills sufficient to go on Middle Eastern news and talk television programs.
This shortage very well may have contributed to the tragedies of September 11th happening at all. On September 10th, the NSA intercepted two messages from known al Qaeda operatives who were considered “high priority” – “Tomorrow is zero hour,” said one; “The match is about to begin,” was the other. Because these messages were from high priority targets, they were shunted into the translator’s queue to be translated…which, due to the high volume of messages and the low number of translators, took two days. Until September 12th.
Clearly, a reasonable and effective defense strategy would be for our government to actually know what people from the Middle East (including those who mean us harm, those who may be trying to prevent harm, and those who want to engage in an ongoing dialogue about how we can improve international relationships and work together on safety threats) are saying to them and be able to talk back.
Yet despite all the talk of aggressive recruitment of linguists, signing and re-enlistment incentives, and stop-loss measures, our government seems intent on shooting itself in the foot when it comes to developing and employing a pool of desperately-needed Arabic language talent.
First, it rejects the already-established talent of men and women who very much want to use their skills on behalf of their country. Just one year after September 11th, the military discharged six Arabic linguists (along with three additional linguists in other critical languages) solely because they had been found to be gay. These “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” discharges have continued up to the present, including the highly-publicized firing of fluent Arabic speaker and West Point graduate Lt. Dan Choi last year.
Then, it harasses a young college student who is studying Arabic, detaining, handcuffing, and aggressively questioning him over the course of a four-hour ordeal as he tried to make his way back to school in California, because of the Arabic-language flashcards he had in his pocket. Among the questions Nick George was asked was whether he knew what language Osama bin Laden spoke. So now our government has made it suspicious behavior not only to speak a language that hundreds of millions of people around the world speak, but to develop language skills that are in painfully short supply and are needed for defense measures that are significantly more effective than violating the Constitutional rights of airline passengers who pose no threat to flight safety.
Maybe it’s just me, but perhaps we need some better strategies.
Becca in Harrisburg