You'd think that with all of the problems in the Middle East, thousands of Russian nuclear weapons pointed at us, and over a billion Chinese people, the most prevalent language specialty in the U.S. intelligence community would be Arabic or Russian or Chinese. But a birdie recently told me that it is Spanish. Not Spanish because there are so many Spanish-speaking Americans (10 percent of the U.S. population, or more than 37 million), but intelligence quality Spanish, that's intended for a special world. Linguists and translators and liaison officers are needed not only to wage war against narcoterrorism, apparently, but also for that big contingency when Mexico becomes the next ungoverned pin on the geostrategist's map.
More than a third of the qualified linguists demanded by the U.S. intelligence community worldwide specialize in Spanish, a statistic that is startlingly out of whack with the true security challenges we face. (Or, alternately, more of a direct "threat" if Mexico implodes than ISIS. But in that case, do we just want to be stuck preparing for war or shouldn't we do something more meaningful to forestall such a possibility?)
Buried in the Snowden documents—contained in the Top Secret National Intelligence Program (NIP) budget for 2010—is a table laying out the 10,700 "master linguists" of all of the national agencies, including the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency. These are people who get handsome bonuses for the maintaining the highest level of proficiency. The number one language: Spanish!
But here's the real secret: The most secret chambers are not looking for native speakers to fill the linguist ranks. In fact, the intelligence community runs at least three different 52-week training courses where non-native speakers are taught Spanish from scratch. The most intensive is in Texas and run by the military, but the NSA also has its National Cryptologic School in Maryland (where 31 separate Spanish courses are offered), and there's the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. And the State Department's Foreign Service Institute, and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, New Mexico, where border patrol agents are run through language orientation. And then there are the DEA and FBI schools; and special operations forces have their own Spanish language programs. And there are still more programs run for the rest of homeland security.
National Cryptologic School Course Catalog
|SPAN||1006ZZ||Non-Res.||70||SPANISH REFRESHER MAINTENANCE COURSE|
|SPAN||1020||Resident||200||RAPID SURVEY OF CRYPTOLOGIC SPANISH|
|SPAN||2050||Resident||200||SPANISH CRYPTOLOGIC BASIC REFRESHER|
|SPAN||2100MR||Resident||480||SPANISH 12-WEEK CRYPTOLOGIC ENHANCEMENT TRAINING|
|SPAN||2110||Resident||120||BASIC LATIN AMERICAN CONVERSATIONAL CRYPTOLOGIC SPANISH|
|SPAN||2120||Resident||192||BASIC SPANISH CRYPTOLOGIC TRANSCRIPTION|
|SPAN||2152||Resident||80||SPANISH CRYPTOLOGIC REFRESHER - TRANSLATION|
|SPAN||2153||Resident||80||SPANISH CRYPTOLOGIC REFRESHER - TRANSCRIPTION|
|SPAN||2155||Non-Res.||80||DIRECTED STUDIES – SPANISH|
|SPAN||2156||Resident||80||SPANISH CRYPTOLOGIC REFRESHER GRAMMAR|
|SPAN||3090JJ||Resident||200||SPANISH CRYPTOLOGIC INTERMEDIATE COURSE|
|SPAN||3200||Resident||192||INTERMEDIATE SPANISH CRYPTOLOGIC GRAMMAR|
|SPAN||3221||Resident||192||INTERMEDIATE SPANISH CRYPTOLOGIC TRANSCRIPTION|
|SPAN||3240||Resident||120||INTERMEDIATE SPANISH CRYPTOLOGIC READING COMPREHENSION|
|SPAN||3255||Non-Res.||30||INTERMEDIATE SPANISH DIRECTED STUDIES|
|SPAN||3270||Resident||128||INTERMEDIATE SPANISH CRYPTOLOGIC TRANSLATION|
|SPAN||3270HH||Resident||40||INTERMEDIATE CRYPTOLOGIC SPANISH, 1986 - TODAY|
|SPAN||3800||Resident||760||ACCELERATED (SPANISH) CRYPTOLOGIC LANGUAGE PROGRAM|
|SPAN||4120JJ||Resident||200||SPANISH CRYPTOLOGIC ADVANCED COURSE|
|SPAN||4300||Resident||192||ADVANCED SPANISH CRYPTOLOGIC STRUCTURE|
|SPAN||4320||Resident||128||ADVANCED SPANISH CRYPTOLOGIC TRANSCRIPTION|
|SPAN||4366||Non-Res.||80||SPANISH INDEPENDENT STUDIES (CRYPTOLOGIC)|
|SPAN||4366AA||Non-Res.||20||SPANISH INDEPENDENT STUDIES (CRYPTOLOGIC)|
|SPAN||4370||Resident||128||ADVANCED SPANISH CRYPTOLOGIC TRANSLATION|
An excerpt from the NSA catalog of courses offered at the National Cryptologic School, showing the 31 given for Spanish linguists. The classified courses deal with specific countries or subject areas where specialized terminology or knowledge is required.
The year-long Texas program, held at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, focuses on what's called full-spectrum signals intelligence and cryptologic language and skills training. That includes language and military terminology, the NSA's specialized software, and the formats of reporting. It's quite an investment for some gringo who might serve only a few years and then move on.
In fact, the demand for "master linguists" is such that NSA has a Military Language Analyst Program, a three-year internship for career eavesdroppers. "Participants will be enrolled in individually structured programs consisting of formal language and related SIGINT-focused classroom instruction and operational work assignments," the NSA says. The MLAP, as it's called, mentors mid-level linguists in what it calls the hard languages: Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Persian, Russian—and Spanish. Why is Spanish in this group?
Language competence has always dogged the intelligence world, a problem exacerbated by the end of the Cold War, when monomaniacal mastery over the Russian language diffused into a tower of Babel. Immediately following the 9/11 attacks and the frenzied shift to human intelligence operations, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld crankily demanded a list of the "five most critical languages" that the Pentagon should focus on.
The Pentagon responded as it always does, passive-aggressively and with thunderous requirements. They produced a list of 12 "investment languages" and two regional language groupings, including, officially: "Arabic (multiple dialects), Chinese (multiple dialects), Spanish, Korean, Farsi, Indonesian (multiple dialects), Filipino (multiple dialects), Kurdish, Turkish, Hindi, Central Asia (multiple dialects), Russian, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Serbo-Croatian." I didn't know Sub-Saharan African was a language.
Even in the global list, Arabic was listed as language number one, but by the time of the Iraq war in 2003, little training had been done and it became clear that an occupation and counter-insurgency demanded basic skills of modern warfare well over the heads of the combat-proficient, even of the intelligence specialists. So between 2004 and 2008, the United States government contracted for over 30,000 linguists to accompany U.S. forces—a $4 billion plus program that sought Arab-Americans and other native speakers from "friendly" countries, which meant mostly Kuwait, given the difficulty of Iraqi dialect.
With that came a gigantic counterintelligence effort to vet and clear these natives for access to American secrets. That morphed into pure intelligence missions to "map" the family ties of contract linguists to plumb these new sources for information they might have on still other sources. But the undercurrent was that Muslims—even American citizens—were not to be trusted. A sensitive apparatus inside the FBI, homeland security and military intelligence grew to address the "problem." More about that later.
Given the multitude of Spanish-language courses offered, it looks like the intelligence community applies some of the same standards to Hispanic-Americans—choosing to train up corn-fed English speakers rather than recruit from the millions of available fluent Spanish-speakers we happen to have at our disposal. When it comes to people granted the highest clearances, having a clean background while being an American citizen seems like it's not enough. Is it just because the government is intent on hiring their own and training them the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way, as they say? Or is it also a statement that native Spanish speakers introduce questions of loyalty, particularly when the intelligence targets might be their ancestral countries?
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[Lead photo Imperial Sand Dune Border Fence courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers]