WASHINGTON // Despite intense focus on Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East in the past decade, US spy agencies are still lacking in language skills needed to talk to locals, translate intercepted intelligence and analyse data, according to top intelligence officials.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 prompted a major push for foreign language skills to track militants and trends in parts of the world that were not a Cold War priority.
But intelligence agencies have had to face the reality that the languages they need cannot be taught quickly, the street slang US operatives and analysts require is not easy, and security concerns make the clearance process slow-going.
As recently as 2009, intelligence officials were still issuing new directives and programmes in the hopes of ramping up language capability.
The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said at a congressional hearing last week: "Language will continue to be a challenge for us.
"It's something we're working at, and will continue to do so, but we're probably not where we want to be," he said.
The US government needs speakers of Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Dari, Urdu, and other languages that are more difficult for English-speakers to learn.
"If you hark back to the Cold War days, it was much easier for us to raise and have a cadre of highly qualified linguists say in Russian and East European languages which comes to our people much more naturally than to these Mideast languages," Mr Clapper said.
The spy agencies will not publicly disclose the number of employees with language skills. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) says Arabic speaking capability increased throughout the intelligence community about three-fold over 10 years and Afghanistan-Pakistan language capability, including Baluchi, Dari, Kirghiz, Pashto, Punjabi, Tajik, Urdu, and Uzbek, increased by 30 times from before the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Intelligence agencies require more than just a perfunctory grasp to understand cultural meanings and different dialects.
Ellen Laipson, president of the Stimson Centre, a Washington think tank, said: "In these very difficult terrorism targets, there's obviously this yearning for native speakers. Some of the people you're trying to track are not themselves highly educated so they use a lot of slang, and it's a higher standard than if you were trying to monitor or interact with very elite foreign ministry people of a developed country."
US spy agencies are reaching out to first- and second-generation Americans whose heritage would provide the language and cultural understanding quicker than trying to teach someone from scratch.
But they can face difficulties getting through the strict security clearance process because of family ties back in their country of heritage.
Intelligence officials say they are trying to change that. ODNI issued a directive in 2008 to make it easier to hire first- and second-generation Americans whose heritage is from countries that can raise potential security issues.
ODNI also started a Heritage Council to reach out to Americans of Pakistani, Arab and Somali descent among others.
The CIA has run television ads geared toward recruiting from the Arab-American and Iranian-American communities. And it says a higher percentage of CIA officers are studying Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, Farsi, Russian, Korean, and Chinese.
CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf said: "The CIA is looking to hire first- and second-generation Americans - people who know the cultures and speak the languages of the world in which we operate. "We work very hard to dispel the myth that they can't get a security clearance if they have spent time overseas or have relatives abroad."
Language experts say the root of the problem lies in an American education system that does not emphasise learning foreign languages early on, the way European schools do.