WASHINGTON – Before Sept. 11, graphic designer Mina Haeri had never thought about applying to work for the FBI.
But when the agency found itself awash in intelligence reports on terrorists in the Al-Qaeda network, it put out a call for speakers of Farsi, Arabic and Pashto to translate and analyze the reports.
“Never before have we had to deal with the magnitude of translating work we have now,” said Peter Gulotta, a spokesman for the FBI in Baltimore.
Haeri, 24, answered the FBI’s call. The Chevy Chase resident, fluent in Farsi, wanted to help bring the terrorists to justice.
“Most of my friends live in Manhattan, so the attacks really hit home for me,” said Haeri. “I’m just as angry as everyone else if not more. I want to step forward to do whatever I can.”
Thousands of people who speak Farsi, Arabic and Pashto have applied to work at the FBI since the attacks, Gulotta said.
“We also have needs in many other languages, but since the bulk of the FBI is involved in this case, Arabic and Farsi are our priority right now,” he said.
The agency’s application and testing process is being accelerated because of the urgent need, Gulotta said. Successful applicants must be highly fluent in the foreign language and pass an English proficiency exam and a background check.
The FBI, the National Security Agency, the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency refuse to reveal the number of foreign-language speakers they lack. But experts said there is a “staggering” shortfall of speakers of these languages in the federal intelligence agencies, and that the FBI’s call emphasizes the severe need.
“This is the first time in history that I know of,” that the agency has issued such a request, said Richard Brecht, director of the National Center for Foreign Languages at the University of Maryland. “It’s an incredible statement about the lack of language readiness of our federal agencies.”
Brecht said foreign languages will be key to winning the war on terrorism.
“You’re dealing with a new kind of enemy and a new kind of war,” he said. “This clearly calls for much stronger focus on language and intercultural skills.”
Many federal agencies, including the FBI, CIA, and State, Commerce and Agriculture departments, offer language training to their employees. But it is a long process, Brecht said, which is why there is a tendency for agencies to turn “heritage communities” for fluent speakers.
Those communities include people like Haeri, a daughter of Iranian immigrants, who grew up speaking the language.
Experts blame the dearth of speakers on the lack of foreign language students.
“There aren’t enough people in the pipeline,” Brecht said.
While more than 1 million people were studying Spanish at the college level and about 26,000 were studying Russian, fewer than 5,000 people were studying Arabic in 1998, according to the Modern Language Association.
The association, which tracks foreign language study at the university level, said only a few dozen studied Farsi, and even fewer studied Pashto in 1998, the most recent year for which data were available.
Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said Americans once did not need foreign language proficiency as much as people on other parts of the world.
“In Europe, because of geography and economic relationships, people have more incentive to learn other languages,” said Cochran, who held hearings on the language issue last year. “Here in America there has just not been the necessity.”
Brecht cited America’s power and the prevalence of English globally as reasons for low interest in learning foreign languages.
“These things give us a false sense of security that English is enough,” Brecht said. “But globalization and new threats to our national security are changing all that.”