Upper-level CIA officers will now have to speak a foreign language proficiently, after CIA Director Leon Panetta announced today that a foreign-language requirement will be put in place for officers being promoted to the Senior Intelligence Service (SIS).

The move is part of a five-year initiative Panetta launched in May to up the CIA's language skills. In Panetta's words, the broader initiative will seek to:

    * Double the number of analysts and collectors who are proficient in languages, particularly those that are mission critical;
     * Increase by 50% the number of people with the right language skills serving in language-use positions; and
     * Dramatically transform the way CIA trains our officers in foreign language capability.

...And to increase Arabic, Pashto, and Urdu fluency and "make language skills an even more important factor in Agency hiring."

Language expertise has been an issue for the CIA since the 9/11 Commission report identified its lack of Arabic (and other relevant-language) speakers before the 9/11 attacks as a fault line in the agency's overall skill set: agents "were suited for traditional agent recruitment or for exploiting liaison relationships with foreign services but were not equipped to seek or use assets inside the terrorist network," the commission wrote.

In April 2009, it was reported that the number of CIA workers with foreign language skills had climbed 70 percent over the previous five years, while 13 percent of CIA employees spoke a foreign language, and that the CIA offers hiring bonuses of up to $35,000 for recruits with "mission critical" languages.

Now, officers promoted to the SIS will have to demonstrate foreign language competency within one year their promotions; if they don't, they will return to their previous, lower grades.

The requirement will apply to "most analysts and operations officers" being promoted to SIS.

"I expect our SIS officers to lead the way in strengthening this critical [language] expertise," Panetta said today. "The stricter requirement for SIS promotion...is meant to ensure that leadership on this vital initiative comes from the executive level.  With an unwavering commitment from SIS officers--to both lead by example and to support language proficiency at all levels--we will reach not only our language goals, but our ultimate objective: an Agency that is better positioned to protect our nation in the years ahead."

The majority of National Clandestine Service (NCS) officers in language training are studying mission-critical languages, fifty percent of the most recent NCS training graduates immediately entered language training, and the number of CIA officers with foreign language proficiency rose nine percent in Fiscal Year 2009, the CIA said today.

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