A Question for the President

This weekend, George Bush is gonna be on Meet the Press, where he’ll likely get to field a bunch of softball questions like “How has your faith made you a better president?” or something like that. Brad DeLong has a few questions that he’d like to see asked and is soliciting more in comments. I’ve got a question I’d love to ask the president (which should come as no surprise to regular readers of the site).

The question I’d ask, in my opinion, goes to the heart of why Bush is such an awful leader. It encompasses his half-assed dedication to the war on terrorism as well as his ideological extremism. Before I pose it, let’s check out this section from pages 70-72 of report issued by the “Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001″ :

6. Finding: Prior to September 11, The Intelligence Community was not prepared to handle the challenge it faced in translating the volumes of foreign language counterterrorism intelligence it collected. Agencies within the Intelligence Community experienced backlogs in material awaiting translation, a shortage of language specialists and language-qualified field officers, and a readiness level of only 30% in the most critical terrorism-related languages.

Discussion: The language problem has been one of the Intelligence Community?s perennial shortfalls. Prior to September 11, the shortage of language specialists who would be qualified to process large amounts of foreign language data in general, and Arabic in particular, was one of the most serious issues limiting the Intelligence Community?s ability to analyze, discern, and report on terrorist activities in a timely fashion. According to a senior NSA official, [ ]. These are promptly scanned for intelligence value, and only the most important ? [ ] — are then translated into English. Yet, prior to September 11, NSA had [ ] personnel assigned to this task.

[Analyzing, processing, translating, and reporting al-Qa?ida-related [ ] communications requires the highest levels of language and target knowledge expertise that exist at the National Security Agency. The large number of communicants whose native origins cover all of the major Arabic dialects makes this [page 75] analysis linguistically and analytically difficult. The target lives in and understands life in a thoroughly Islamic milieu, a milieu that is often reflected in the target?s communications].

Evaluating these communications requires considerable subject matter expertise in Islam in general and Islamic extremism in particular in order to ensure the best possible interpretations. Very few Arabic language analysts at NSA have done any graduate work in Islamic Studies and the vast majority of these linguists [ ].

The NSA Senior Language Authority explained to the Joint Inquiry that the Language Readiness Index for NSA language personnel working in the counterterrorism ?campaign languages? is currently around 30%. This Index is based on the percentage of the mission that is being performed by qualified language analysts. The current low level of the Index is due in part to the fact that NSA has moved roughly [ ] language personnel since September 11 from areas in which they were performing quite well to counterterrorism, where they must gain experience and expertise before their performance can improve.

[According to the Chief of the FBI?s Language Services Division, prior to September 11, the Bureau employed [ ] Arabic speakers and was experiencing a translation backlog. As a result, 35% of Arabic language materials derived from Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) collection were not reviewed or translated. If the number of Arabic speakers were to remain at [ ], the projected backlog would rise to 41% in 2003.]

The Director of the CIA Language School testified that, given the CIA?s language requirements, the CIA Directorate of Operations is not fully prepared to fight a world- [page 76] wide war on terrorism and at the same time carry out its traditional agent recruitment and intelligence collection mission. She also added that there is no strategic plan in place with regard to linguistic skills at the Agency. When asked about the language ability of CIA field officers, the Language School Director stated:

[Traditionally we have had an adequate number of Arabic speakers to conduct their business in [ ]. Level of language required to use with a volunteer or for a thorough debriefing is very different than the level of language you need to socially chit-chat with somebody or to even recruit someone. And that is where the bar has been raised much higher, and that’s why we must now have a cadre of language speakers, [ ] who indeed can debrief and write up reports with these volunteers].

The Director of the CIA Language School explained that CIA should have a pool of interpreters to meet language support needs at home and abroad, but that this is not easy to achieve. She stated that: ?With the progress of technology, we keep on getting more material ? [ ]. These things need translation, we don?t have that capability.? In her view, CIA field officers are typically generalists, and this has been important to their career progression culture since the mid- 1970s. Now, however, it is an absolute must that these officers possess expertise rather than mastery of ?one little dab here and one little dab there.? Her recommendation was that either a culture change within CIA is called for or that a cadre of specialists be developed and not penalized.

Now keep that in mind when you read this story from a month before the House and senate Committees completed their report :

Nine soldiers being trained as translators at a military-run language school have been discharged for being gay despite a shortage of linguists for the US war against terror, officials and rights activists said Friday.
The nine were discharged from the army’s Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, California over the course of this year, said Lieutenant Colonel Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for the army’s Training and Doctrine Command.

They included six who were being trained as Arabic speakers, two in Korean and another in Chinese, he said. “All the servicemembers had stellar service records and wanted to continue doing the important jobs they held, but they were fired because of their sexual orientation,” said Steve Ralls of the Servicemen’s Legal Defense Network.
. . .
The Defense Language Institute had no immediate comment on the dismissals which came despite a frantic search for more Arabic speakers to decrypt intelligence that could prevent terror strikes by Islamist fanatics.

“There aren’t a lot of Arabic speakers in the military to begin with, so the loss of seven Arabic speakers is a very significant loss to the country,” Ralls said.

So the question that I would ask Bush if I were Tim Russert is this :

“Last year, a Congressional joint inquiry looking into the intelligence failures behind the 9/11 attacks concluded that our intelligence agencies were only operating at 30% capacity, yet in November of 2002, six Arabic speakers were discharged for being in violation of the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. As commander-in-chief, how do you justify keeping this policy in place when it directly impedes our ability to effectively fight the war on terrorism? Who do you hate more, gay people or terrorists?”

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