Almost eight years after the alarming lessons of 9/11, the Senate Intelligence Committee finds the nation’s spy agencies mumbling more than mastering the languages of the nation’s adversaries. The committee did not mince words in pronouncing the intelligence community’s foreign language capabilities to be “abysmal.”
“The cadre of intelligence professionals capable of speaking, reading, or understanding critical regional languages such as Pashto, Dari or Urdu remains essentially nonexistent,” the committee warned in a lengthy critique of the C.I.A. and other agencies that raised worries over the loss of information vital to national preparedness. The panel laid bare these problems in the course of approving an intelligence spending bill.
It’s no secret that the intelligence community has been reeling from the disclosure of its shortcomings in the lead-up to the attacks of 9/11 and to the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. The Senate panel performs a worthy service in pointing to the failure to improve on one of the basics: information gathering, let alone eavesdropping, means agencies must do a far better job at language education and hiring new people with needed skills to grasp what dangers may be out there.
The Senate report also warns that intelligence agencies are falling short in tracking rising threats from cyberthieves and others intent on attacking the nation’s information networks. And it once more points to an over-reliance on contractors — who were found to make up 29 percent of the intelligence community’s personnel last year, while consuming 49 percent of its personnel budget.
The Senate committee suggested that the Obama administration create an independent commission to help identify gaps in intelligence policy. Like the language gap, this idea goes back to the 9/11 Commission Report, and seems worth adopting now.