Fixing Foreign Intelligence: The Linguist Dimension

Indian intelligence agencies needs to include language skills if they wish to improve their effectiveness.

Fans of the James Bond series are well aware that the fictional MI6 character spoke German, French, Japanese and Danish. One may wonder: does the real world of espionage and intelligence agencies in the West really have such diverse linguistic expertise? The answer is both yes and no! That begs a deeper inquiry: what has been their experience so far with employing people with linguistic skills in collecting and analysing intelligence on foreign threats? It has been a story of severe catastrophe, followed by noteworthy remedial actions. The business of foreign intelligence requires a high level of language proficiency, which is sometimes hard to come by, and at times, unable to put to use effectively. This is explored in great detail in the sections below.

With an eye to help improve Indian external intelligence, are there any lessons that can be learnt from the Western experiences? I believe that the Western experience with linguists, as illustrated below, is self-explanatory on the significance of linguists for intelligence activity. Further, the means and methods that the Western agencies have developed to tackle the linguistic deficiency are rife with lessons for India to emulate. What are these? We shall see in the final section.

Hunters or Gatherers: One Must Know the Language of the Jungle

In simplistic terms, intelligence collection is analogous with a hunter mimicking the noise of the prey to lure it. By implication, for an intelligence officer to obtain information or recruit an agent in a foreign land, linguistic fluency of the host territory becomes inevitable. Without these skills, the mighty US intelligence failed to develop human intelligence (HUMINT) on Kremlin and al-Qaeda.

Whether you choose to collect intelligence from open sources or covert operations, linguistic skills are crucial. Robert David Steele, a veteran intelligence officer and an advocate of increased open source intelligence programmes, wrote in 2008 that “every single President, Secretary and Director of Central Intelligence had seen fit to ignore the deficiencies in foreign languages”. The reason was more focus was laid on collecting secret intelligence. But, did they fare well at least in secret operations? Nay!

During the late 90s, an issue was raised over the “English only” mentality among officers of the Directorate of Operations (DO)/ National Clandestine Service (NCS). Patrick Riley, a former DO officer, defended this organisational trait by asserting that linguistic shortcomings can be overlooked because what was more important was the “talent for recruitment and handling of agents”. However, in the face of significant downfalls the agency went through, Joseph Wippl, another officer clarified that officers who lack fluency in foreign language invariably hunt for “potential agents who are English speakers”. Riley may be correct in arguing that agent handling is an important skill demanded of a DO officer, but Wippl’s contention only sharpens the tradecraft.

As international security observers, readers will also be aware of the increasing penchant for special operations these days as military interventions are becoming costlier. Does this mean anything for linguists in intelligence roles? Certainly, yes! The practice of recruiting candidates with linguistic and cultural knowledge of the enemy and then training them with fighting skills was witnessed in the Brandenburgers, WWII German special forces. The British and American special forces, on the contrary, focused on technological superiority and air power. This operational culture has come to haunt them in the modern day when they are involved in unknown locations like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Human Terrain Systems (HTS) had to be created composing of ethno-linguistic experts, intelligence officials and special operatives to deal with this problem. The ethno-linguistic experts were responsible for Ethnographic Intelligence— information about indigenous forms of association, local means of organisation, and traditional methods of mobilisation. Without this, the special operatives found that most of their operations were either a failure or counterproductive. In future, as the number of counterinsurgency (CI) and counterterrorist (CT) operations increase, strategic and operational intelligence development will require in-depth knowledge of the region, which can be derived through linguistic and cultural expertise.

Besides CI and CT campaigns, demand for linguists in intelligence collection was witnessed even in the “war on drugs” campaign. Intelligence officials found it impossible to penetrate drug trafficking networks that were connected through a mode of linguistic homogeneity. Nigerian and Chinese drug trafficking networks, for example, operated within their ethnic communities and used languages and dialects unfamiliar to the intelligence and law enforcement personnel. Such vacuum in generating intelligence can only be filled by employing linguists in critical roles in intelligence gathering and law enforcement.           

It’s Gibberish: Linguists in Intelligence Analysis

If the job of an intelligence analyst is to observe a piece of information and make sense of it, isn’t it only logical that a good level of linguistic fluency is expected? Yet, the West had to learn it under severe duress during WWII. “This is Devil’s language”, “It’s gibberish”, “This doesn’t make any sense”, were some of the expressions used by American translators and interpreters during WWII. Although US Naval Officers had visited Japan during the interwar period to study Japanese language, they were found incapable of decoding the intercepted Japanese communication. Why did this happen? It is because, the characters and phonetics were not easily fathomable. Japanese language was too difficult to be understood with limited proficiency. This realisation paved way for the development of an excellent pool of linguists and analysts at Bletchley Park, which became the basis for modern day National Security Agency (NSA) and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

Even after such bitter learning experiences the failure of US intelligence community in dealing effectively with the Kremlin problem or the al-Qaeda prior to 9/11 was attributed to linguistic handicap. So, what exactly is the kind of linguistic expertise that is sought for intelligence analysis work? Why can’t someone with a working knowledge of the language be expected to do the job? The reason is because intelligence analysis is about deciphering enemy intentions and capabilities. This information is not just in a foreign language, but also concealed in a coded form that needs to be broken down.

For instance, consider a scenario in which a subordinate is reporting to a dictator like Hitler with great flair and confidence. An average translator may be able to translate this content into English, but an analyst with full proficiency and cultural insights would be able to recognise the nuances in voice modulation and content delivery to recognise fact from fiction and exaggeration in the subordinate’s report. In intelligence studies we call it competency-based model for evaluating intelligence. Accordingly, a good analysis is born out of a triangulation of abilities, skills and knowledge, of which language is an integral component.

Now, consider another example, this time a piece of coded information on the Germans is intercepted that needs to be deciphered—a process called “cryptanalysis”. It requires high degree of fluency. For one, the cryptanalyst has to be fluent with the statistical information on the word and letter frequency for code breaking. In layman terms, the analyst must know the commonly recurring words—like is, are, and, for, the in English language—in the German language. Other essentials include the knowledge of sentence structure in different dialects. This is something most Indians would have experienced while watching a native language movie with English subtitles. The subtitles seldom carry the meaning of the sentences in the true sense. They are either literal word-to-word translation or merely providing the gist, devoid of any flavour. In intelligence, this would be regarded as absolute travesty.

In case the intercepted message is in audio format, then the linguist will require excellence in “acoustic phonetics”. By definition, acoustic phonetics is the study of the acoustic property of sounds, which are determined by measuring pitch, loudness and quality. Simply put, a linguist should be able to identify the nuances in the tone of the speaker to judge the dialect and the veracity of the content. For example, a linguist is the only privileged individual capable of identifying differing sound patterns to determine the origin of the speaker. Such vocal diversities within one spoken language can be found in several Indian languages. For an illustration, one may consider traveling from south to north Karnataka and observe how the sounds in Kannada language change.

Apart from these, another important area of analysis that requires the expertise of linguists is in identifying disinformation, biases and fake news. One may think that intelligence officers live a Bond lifestyle and intelligence gathering is a cocky business of penetrating behind enemy lines and stealing information. Unfortunately, this aspect of intelligence is minuscule. Most intelligence officials, like us, get most of the information from open source material, which they have to carefully consume, lest they become victims of propaganda.

“It is here that the linguist has an important role to play in mapping out the potential for bias in the news, since it is the very basis of linguistic expertise to understand how language is organised”, says Annabelle Lukin. Other studies indicate that linguists are best suited to detect fake news through methods such as data representation, deep syntax and semantic analysis. In fact, the success rate in detecting fake news through the semantic analysis method during experimentation had been as high as 91 percent.

We Have a Mole in the Circus: Challenges to Effective Employment of Linguists

We know that a linguist is an indispensable part of the intelligence process,so what is the problem in employing more number of them? The primary obstacle comes from the basic culture of intelligence which operates heavily on suspicion and secrecy.

In the intelligence parlance, a mole is a term used to denote an enemy spy operating within one’s the intelligence agency, popularised by former British intelligence officer John le Carre in his novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy when the protagonist is told, “We have a mole. Right at the top of the circus”. Uncovering a mole is difficult because the target is well immersed in the host’s culture and noticeable change in characteristics become few and far between.

Former CIA officer, Joseph Wippl recalls people at Langley taunting his Europe appointment by asking, “Has the system not made a mistake? You actually speak their language!” This is a tricky issue to handle and is best captured in the words of Hillary Footitt, “The translation zone is a problematic area for both clients of translation and those who are translators; and is particularly so in the times of war and conflict, where issues of accuracy, security and loyalty are of major concerns”.

Such security concerns have given rise to other practices like “stovepiping” that disseminate raw intelligence only on a need-to-know basis. This has been observed as a serious impediment in conducting effective intelligence analysis and perceived as the disconnect between intelligence culture and translation practice. Senior intelligence managers have, therefore, been compelled to interfere and avert such worries and concerns from impeding effective analysis.

The indirect impact of such organisational culture is that self-respecting linguists begin to look elsewhere for greater job opportunities that offer higher pay packages. This was exactly what happened during the 90s in agencies like the NSA. Apart from budget cuts following the collapse of Soviet Union, the deteriorating intelligence culture only motivated the linguists to take advantage of the economic boom by working for private firms. Thus, in a cost-benefit analysis the benefits of employing linguists exceed the organisational and security costs perceived by some in the intelligence agencies.

For Indian Foreign Intelligence: Lessons from the Western Experience

From the narrative offered above it is clear that the employment of linguistic skills in intelligence is inescapable. The larger question is who does it and how is it done? From WWII till date, the Western agencies have experimented several methods for recruiting linguists and/or training intelligence personnel in linguistic skills. These methods range from open advertisements to deliberate picking of talented minds from the universities. The latter was more prominent in times of war when the urgency was acute. However, with limited wars  and perennial conflict, intelligence agencies in the West have realised that a steady pool of linguists is necessary to keep up with the changing threat environment, but talent hunting has been replaced by career advertisements for volunteer services. Agencies like the CIA, FBI, NSA, GCHQ, MI6, MI5 and the RAF, to name a few, have online advertisements and applications are available for interested citizens to apply. The selection procedures, training courses, eligibility and requirements and career prospects are well spelt out in these advertisements that offer clarity to the citizens and also designed to lure them into considering these job opportunities.

For example, the British GCHQ clearly states the role of a linguist in SIGINT, which includes filtering, processing, decryption, transcription, translation and analysis, and also states the challenges for linguists like jargons, slangs, dialects, swearing, obscenities and boasting, implying that along with language skills it is also imperative to have a cultural understanding. Such explicit expressions of the character of the job offers a sense of clarity to the applicant who is otherwise caught in the dilemma of working for an intelligence agency, which by popular notion is supposed to be secretive and mysterious. The Royal Air Force (RAF) goes a step further to present an allure of transferable skills that can be employed elsewhere, in places like media, civil service, informational technology and others to enable swift promotions up the organisational hierarchies.

In the US, another unique and effective method of advertising involves carrying employee testimonies to convey a sense of pride and honour to prospective applicants. For example, in the FBI linguists are actively involved with field agents at trials, suspect interviews, occasionally on searches and arrests, and as interpreters in training sessions. Atef, an intelligence analyst, says the best part of his job is “when my work is submitted as evidence at trials and when I contribute to disrupting the plans of terrorists.” Another linguist Juan expressed pride over the fact that he “contributed to investigations by translating and transcribing hundreds of telephone calls (that) led to the dismantling of Chicago-area drug organizations and gangs.”

The desire to be part of operations and contribute to national security is seen as one of the strongest determinants of career choice in the US and the intelligence authorities craft their advertisements appropriately. Similarly the CIA has also posted testimonies from its personnel working in foreign language division which include expressions of travel enthusiasm, adventurism and protecting the nation. In addition to all these perks, all the agencies stated above mention the pay scales that range in several thousand pounds or dollars per annum.

In India, the intelligence culture still retains the colonial practice of maintaining elitism in intelligence recruitment. There is still no direct entry for aspirants to gain employment in India’s foreign intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). As late as 2014, media reports indicated that the problem of the dearth of linguists had hit the R&AW, which it sought to remedy by training intelligence officers in linguistic skills. This shows that the repeated calls for recruitment from open market have fallen on deaf ears. Therefore, it is safe to assume that the problems faced by Western agencies are true of even the Indian agencies. However, the remedial measures undertaken by the West is far more robust than the Indian counterparts. Thus, the bottom-line for offsetting the linguist challenge to Indian agencies is through a fundamental change in the intelligence culture, embracing talent from the open market and not relying on the archaic civil service means of recruitment.

Once the determination to expand the linguist pool has been made, the agencies will have to adopt both the modern day advertisement methods employed by the West as well as the WWII era induction method of pooling talents from universities. There are several Indian universities offering degrees in linguistics that produce bright talented youth whose services are inadequately utilised. In my own experience, during the two years I spent in Jawaharlal Nehru University, I had come across several enthusiastic youth fluent in languages like Persian, Urdu and Mandarin, which are of direct relevance in the R&AW’s operational sphere. But what stops them? It’s the lack of direct recruitment opportunities in the R&AW. Some enthusiasts of intelligence work take refuge in applying for the Intelligence Bureau (IB), which has an entrance exam for the post of Assistant Central Intelligence Officer (ACIO). But, the difficulty in clearing the examination ensures greater drop-out ratios. They are, by then, employed in the private sector as translators or interpreters. It should be remembered that most of these students hail from humble backgrounds and do not have the luxury of chasing their dream jobs for years.

What makes it difficult for these linguists to crack the IB entrance? The answer is that the question papers test the logical reasoning and problem solving abilities of the contestants. Ironically, the marks-oriented Indian education curriculum has done little to adequately inculcate such analytical skills in students. Hence, the onus lies on the intelligence agencies to recruit linguistic talents and train them in reasoning and analytical skills, similar to the current system of training intelligence officers in linguistic skills.

This leads us to the critical question: how to develop an ideal intelligence professional from these recruits? A similar question was pursued in America recently by a scholar named Nicholas Dujmovic, which can be applied to the Indian case. Two former American intelligence officials, Randy (a recruiter for CIA’s Directorate of Operations) and Jeff (a hiring adviser for the Department of Analysis) were interviewed. According to the two, the essential qualities that they sought in new recruits were writing and presentation skills, substantive, situational and historic knowledge of the conduct of intelligence activities. While the former is expected, the latter is virtually impossible to expect from an Indian with limited access to archival material, lack of intelligence studies courses and restrictions on intelligence personnel from sharing their experiences with the public. Jeff categorically mentions that “participation in a study-abroad programme is a ‘real plus’, while lack of a foreign language is a handicap”.

Jeff’s point offers India ample opportunity to deal with the dearth of foreign intelligence analysts. A two-pronged recruitment and training strategy can be effectively devised. The first method is a replica of the German Brandenburgers- adoption of individuals with inherent cultural and linguistic familiarities and then training them with operational skills. A network of agents in universities, like the professors of Cambridge and other universities who provided recruits to work in Bletchley Park, must operate to recognise and select talent. Also, open advertisements must be made inviting linguists to volunteer their services.

The second method would involve selecting talented students with an international relations and area-studies degree. These students, by virtue of their academic requirements, would have a basic level to advanced level proficiency in languages, making them worthy of employment in analytical positions. Indian students studying abroad are also a potential source of recruitment as they are candidates with knowledge of the language as well as cultural nuances of the region. In order to encourage these talented minds to consider a career in intelligence as an analyst or a linguist, effective marketing strategies are required. However, as stated earlier, all this is possible only with a change in India’s intelligence culture which operates on rigid pattern of recruitment.

As India aspires to become a great power and gain global presence, the public and security personnel need to ask for such qualitative reforms in intelligence. It’s time the political leadership said to the intelligence bureaucracy, “Do it. I want it done yesterday!” Without this, we will still be a dinghy trying to navigate the great seas.

About the author

Dheeraj P C

Dheeraj PC isa PhD Scholar in Intelligence Studies at the University of Leicester, U.K. His research interests include on the dynamics of intelligence in military operations, counterterrorism and national security. His articles on the stated themes have appeared in several reputed international academic journals and policy & security forums.