Wednesday, April 22, 2009 | 2:08 a.m.
One of the national security weaknesses exposed by the 9/11 attacks was the lack of Arab-speaking agents in the CIA and in other U.S. intelligence-gathering agencies.
The gathering of information on foreign-based terrorists and their organizations would seem to be an impossible task without the mastery of foreign language skills necessary to interpret the verbal and written material gathered in the course of an investigation.
One would think the CIA — in the nearly eight years since the terrorist attacks — would have become proficient in that skill set. In fact, the number of CIA employees who speak more than one language has risen by 70 percent over the past five years.
But USA Today reported Monday that even with that increase, only 28 percent of the agency’s clandestine operations employees and only 18 percent of its analysts speak a foreign language. The overall number of CIA employees proficient in at least a second language is a pathetic 13 percent.
The agency has its work cut out in order to meet CIA Director Leon Panetta’s goal of having every spy and analyst trained in a foreign language.
The CIA’s poor language skills are a sad reflection of how little emphasis this country places on teaching foreign languages. If American schools placed more emphasis on that, the CIA and other agencies that rely on foreign language skills would be able to draw from a deeper pool of talent.
A 2005 study prepared by the Center for Applied Linguistics, a language education advocacy group in Washington, reported that more than 50 percent of European adults are fluent in a second language. By contrast, only 9 percent of U.S. adults fall into that category.
To help reduce possible future terrorist attacks, the CIA should aggressively step up its recruitment and training efforts to ensure that its spies and analysts have the language skills necessary to do their jobs effectively.