Linguists: The Feds Want You

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The FBI is looking for a few good Pashto speakers. Also, according to an appeal posted on the FBI website today, the bureau is seeking fluent speakers and readers of Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, Bulgarian, Burmese, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Indonesian, Kazakh, Korean, Kurdish, Malay, Malayalam, Serbo-Croatian, Somali, Swahili, Tajik, Thai, Tamil, Tigrinya, Turkish, Turkmen, Uigur, Urdu, Uzbek, and Vietnamese.

Pashto makes sense — it’s the language of Afghanistan and the Pakistan-Afghan frontier, where al-Qaeda training camps and safe houses may still exist. Arabic is spoken by many of the tens of thousands of men who went through the camps and are now scattered around the world. But Uigur? Margaret Gulotta, chief of the FBI’s language services program, says this Turkish-based language, spoken by about eight million people in China’s Sinkiang Uigur autonomous region, has come up occasionally in terrorism cases.. Ditto Amharic and Tigrinya, spoken in Ethiopia, Tamil, the language of the Sri Lankan terrorist group Tamil Tigers, and the dialects of Southeast Asia, where Muslim extremism is rising. “About 90 percent of the world’s population speak [one of] 60 or 70 languages,” says Gulotta, “but there are about 6000 languages and dialects spoken in the world and if one of those languages comes up we can’t ignore it.”

Since the 9/11 attacks, the FBI has received some 40,000 applications for linguist jobs. Only about ten percent get hired; the FBI went through 1600 Arabic speakers to hire 160 people in the last two years. Part of the reason: It’s hard to find top-notch linguists who also can also qualify for a top secret security clearance. FBI linguists must be equally able to interpret a wiretap laced with street slang and to read a document containing scientific jargon. And, making matters more difficult, the FBI competes with the CIA and other parts of the intelligence community for linguists with impeccable backgrounds.