Despite heavy recruitment, CIA still short on bilingual staff

ByABC News
April 19, 2009, 11:13 PM

WASHINGTON -- Just 13% of CIA employees speak a foreign language nearly five years after the 9/11 Commission urged the agency to expand its ranks of bilingual operatives and analysts to help thwart future terrorist attacks, according to CIA data provided at USA TODAY's request.

The overall number of CIA workers with foreign language skills has risen 70% in the past five years amid broader recruiting efforts that have included Internet ads on YouTube and Facebook, the figures show. The data are limited to percentages because specific staffing levels are classified.

Still, bilingual employees account for 18% within the agency's Directorate of Intelligence, which handles all analysis of information gathered by the agency. Within the National Clandestine Service, which runs foreign spy operations, 28% of employees speak a foreign language.

The CIA's lack of foreign language speakers has fueled criticisms from congressional committees and commissions since the 9/11 attacks of 2001.

CIA Director Leon Panetta said after his confirmation earlier this year that expanding foreign language proficiency among new and existing staff is a top priority. "I'd like to get to a point where every analyst and operations officer is trained in a foreign language," he said. "Foreign languages are extremely important to understanding that part of the world that we have to gather intelligence from."

Besides Internet and TV ads, CIA officials are recruiting first- and second-generation Americans in immigrant communities, such as Detroit, which has a large Arab-American population. The CIA also offers hiring bonuses of up to $35,000 to recruits with "mission critical" languages, such as Arabic, Chinese, Dari, Korean, Pashtu, Persian, Russian and Urdu.

House Intelligence Committee member Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., wants the CIA to do more to make foreign language development an integral part of its operation for both new and existing staff.

"Does this look like significant progress after eight years of pressure?" he said of the new figures. "Their performance is mediocre at best."