Intelligence: America Learns Arabic


February24, 2007: American intelligence agencies have improved their Arab language skills enormously since September 11, 2001 . The American FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) had only about a hundred Arab linguists (many of them marginal) back then. Six years later, the FBI has hundreds of agents with some proficiency with Arabic, and enough linguists to translate 34,000 wiretap messages a month. The FBI now has over 1,400 Arabic linguists, and most of those were hired in the last year.

The military, and CIA, have been making it difficult for the FBI to obtain Arabic linguists, because for the military and CIA, getting more Arab linguists is a matter of life and death. So the military and CIA offer more money and perks to offer suitable candidates. In response, many organizations are using more translation software ("machine translation"), plus training more of their own people and, most importantly, getting better at finding, screening and hiring Arab-Americans and resident foreigners with Arab language skills. This last source has required the most ingenuity. Right after September 11, 2001, along with the sudden need for Arab linguists, there was the fear that many of those speaking Arabic could not be trusted. Initial screenings, using traditional methods, found this to be largely untrue. As the years went by, the screening methods were improved. This increased the number of applicants who were accepted. But at times, untrustworthy people got through. There have not been many incidents of translators passing on secrets to the enemy, and the intelligence agencies have devoted a lot of effort to detecting any such activity. Loyalty has been much less of a problem than more pragmatic considerations, like correctly identifying Arabic language skills (especially when it comes to dialects and reading comprehension). The FBI has found, for example, that its Arab translators become even more hostile to Islamic radicalism after listening to hours of people spewing their ethnic and religious hatred in wiretapped conversations.

Machine translation has been another big help. There have been major technology advances in this area in the past few years, which was very timely. Actually, the need for machine translation of Arabic (a very difficult language to translate via software) has brought more money to research in this area. But the overall improvements in machine translation has made it possible to extract potentially useful information from vast quantities of email and phone conversations, and turn them over to linguists for precise translation. As a result, Islamic terrorists cannot feel so secure chatting away in Arabic anymore.


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