Why Do CIA Officers Need Spanish Interpreters?

By Jeffrey Goldberg

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/08/why-do-cia-officers-need-spanish-interpreters/261700/