Lack of linguists a 'security risk'

June 25, 2004

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ADELPHI, June 24: A grave shortage of foreign linguists is endangering U.S. national security, experts said at a conference on Tuesday, but critics said efforts to address it had been superficial and inadequate.

"Almost three years after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, we still fail to address one of the most serious security problems facing this nation," said Rep. Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat who is on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.

"So far, the approach has been superficial or temporary, with Congress and senior administration officials confining most of their efforts to exhorting agencies to hire more linguists. That is not enough," Holt said.

He and other experts were attending the Defense Department-sponsored National Language Conference on improving language skills in the government, shown to be inadequate to deal with crises in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

David Chu, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told the conference the recruitment of qualified linguists, including those with a cultural understanding of key areas, was among "the most pressing national security needs."

"We cannot delay taking action," he said. The Pentagon, CIA and other agencies have often bemoaned a shortage of linguists in Arabic and other "exotic languages" and said there is a backlog of material obtained by satellites, bugging and spies which needs translation.

UPHILL BATTLE: Officials said rigorous security screening, a limited pool of willing, qualified candidates and funding constraints complicated the task of hiring more linguists.

One intelligence official at the conference said that agencies intercepting communications only had between one quarter and one third of the Arabic speakers they needed to handle their workload.

Holt said more U.S. college students were studying ancient Greek today than Arabic, Persian, Pashto and a number of other needed languages combined. He said Department of Education figures showed only 22 people out of 1.8 million graduates of U.S. colleges and universities had earned degrees in Arabic last year. -Reuters