Why Do CIA Officers Need Spanish Interpreters?

In re: this strange incident in which two U.S. government employees, suspected to be working for the CIA, were shot in Mexico, this note, buried deep in The Washington Post's coverage of the incident, struck me as odd:

The two U.S. employees and a Mexican navy captain serving as an interpreter were heading Friday to a navy training camp south of Mexico City when, the U.S. Embassy says, they were ambushed.

They needed an interpreter? Really? Assuming these two employees were, in fact, CIA, what does it suggest about our intelligence agencies that they don't have adequate numbers of Spanish speakers to deploy to Mexico? A dearth of Arabic and Farsi and Pashto speakers, I understand -- it's only been, you know, more than a decade since 9/11. You can't expect the government to rush its employees into hard-language courses. After all, these hard languages are... hard. But Spanish?

I'm trying to find out more about this. But it is consistently astonishing to me, after years of traveling in odd, and not-so-odd places, how few American government employees are fully fluent, or even partially fluent, in the languages of the countries to which they are deployed.

UPDATE:  A smart person I know called to suggest that perhaps these two government employees were in Mexico on a training mission, teaching a specific skill, and that therefore language-proficiency was a secondary concern. This is plausible. It is also plausible that they were stationed there permanently. But it is a fair point to make, that people dispatched to other countries on temporary duty to perform a single task can't be expected to speak all known languages.

Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Global

From This Author

Just In