The Iraq Debacle: A Failure to Communicate?
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Connect these dots: The CIA, the Pentagon, the war in Iraq, gay sex and former Republican Rep. Randall "Duke" Cunningham.
Don't see it?
The Pentagon says it doesn't want gays in its ranks, which Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, underscored last week when he called "homosexual acts between two individuals ... immoral."
Next: For several years now the Pentagon has been flushing scores of Arabic linguists from its ranks because they are gay.
Next: There is an acute shortage of Arabic linguists in Iraq.
Next: The war has been hobbled by a lack of language abilities in Iraq.
And finally: Cunningham is in jail because he took bribes from a guy who headed a company, MZM, which was hired to fill the linguist gap in Iraq. Two former CIA guys are linked to bribes and MZM, too.
Sordid, yes. But there's an even more stomach-churning back story to this tale: The linguists could hardly speak Arabic.
And you wonder why there's an intelligence gap?
I thought I was hardened to bad news about Iraq until I talked with Dustin Langan, an Arabic linguist sent to Iraq by MZM shortly after the 2003 invasion.
Langan, now 32, gave a recent and little-noticed interview to Radar magazine that described such criminal folly that I had to call him up and hear it -- and more, as it turned out -- for myself.
The bottom line: The U.S is not just sending people to Iraq with under par language training, in most cases they have been schooled for months in a kind of Arabic that few ordinary Iraqis speak.
"There was no accountability" in Iraq, Langan told me by phone from Spain, where he now lives. "There was absolutely no accountability, no oversight there. So you had all kinds of crazy things happening."
Langan worked for MZM and another linguistics contractor for about 11 months between late 2002 and early 2004.
In September 2002, he was hired by REEP Inc., a contractor in Nashua, N.H., to teach a brush-up course to soldiers who had already taken Arabic at the Defense Language Institute (DLI), in some cases years earlier.
Langan had studied Arabic at DLI himself for four months in 1994.
There were 10 soldiers in his class. How many of them, I asked, could speak Arabic to any useful degree after four months?
"There were zero," he said. "We were doing the mama, papa, caca [Spanish for excrement] Arabic. We were just trying to get the basics."
"I could hear [Arabic] well, and I could pronounce well, and I understood how the language worked. But as far as having a conversation? No, I could hear something, but that was about it."
That experience, I told him, mirrored my own many years ago.
A budding military intelligence case officer, I was sent to DLI for a year to study Vietnamese.
In my class of 10, only a couple of us graduated with a pretty good understanding of the difficult, tonal language.
Langan got an early out from the Army. But finding he had a talent for languages, he threw himself into a year of intensive self-instruction in Arabic, followed by courses at the University of Washington.
"Even after that I felt very shaky about it," he said. "And I should have, because it was quite shaky in terms of fluency."
Fast forward to 2002. Langan, working in a Chinese restaurant near Seattle, gets an e-mail "out of the blue" from REEP to give the six-week brush-up course.
No tests, no screening
He had six military students, most of whom had been through DLI's 20-week course. At least one had taken the 63-week course.
Such training is usually only given to intelligence personnel.
They were there "because they still hadn't scored high on the DLPT" (the Defense Language Proficiency Test), Langan said. His job was to put them through a six-week course of all-Arabic-all-the time "iso-immersion," where soldiers speak Arabic in an isolated environment.
Weak on Basics
"Their Arabic was terrible," Langan recalled. "I mean, they could read it, but they couldn't speak anything. They didn't understand grammar at all. ... Their reading comprehension was okay, but it wasn't strong. And their grammatical understanding was weak."
"We had a lot of trouble keeping it as an iso-immersion course," he said. During a kitchen break, "they wouldn't know the word for fork. Or spoon. I mean, there was a lot missing there."
Off they went to Iraq, certified in Arabic.
According to the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, the U.S. "Green Zone" in Baghdad had only six Americans fluent in Arabic last year.
It makes you wonder, of course, if any of Langan's students were counted among them.
Looting by Interpreters
Langan arrived in Baghdad himself in the last week of April 2003, in the wake of the invading troops.
Not before he got a serious case of butterflies at the staging area in Kuwait, however.
"We were watching Kuwaiti TV, and there was someone on there speaking and I didn't understand a lot of it. And I was really concerned.
"And I voiced my concern," Langan recalled. "I said, I don't understand that guy. And I'm screwed. I'm going to fall on my ass, you know? What am doing here?"
"And this guy sitting next to me said, 'that's just that ol' Arabic talk, their political talk."
It was an Iraqi official on TV, it turned out.
"I said what are they saying? The guy next to me said, 'Oh, it's the same old Arab political thing.'
But what was the Iraqi saying?
"It turned out this guy didn't know anything at all," Langan said. "It turned out he could not speak Arabic -- at all. Well, he could speak some. He had gone to DLI 15 years before."
The guy went on to work as an "interpreter-translator" in Iraq for six months, he said.
The rest of the MZM group "was mostly Iraqi Americans, actually," Langan said.
"They were all taxi drivers and shwarma (gyro) cooks from Dearborn," Michigan's large Arabic community.
"They weren't professional linguists," Langan said, adding, "There was such a sense of entitlement" among them.
The exiles thought "they had earned it somehow. They would joke about the things that they 'liberated.' They would say, I've 'liberated' this, I've 'liberated' that. Which meant that they stole it, of course."
Can We Talk?
Much has been written about the scandalous performance of other contractors who sent linguists and interrogators to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Today, Langan says, "I suspect that many companies' business practices were similar to MZM. Not that they were bribing congressmen, but the way they were conducting themselves and pursuing the linguistic question in general. ...
"If you look at some of these companies, I think they were originally communications companies, and they said to themselves, We'll do linguistics too. They kind of treated like it was a technology they could buy and send over there."
The companies didn't bother testing its employees, and U.S. agencies had no mechanism for assuring the fidelity of their contractors, by many accounts.
Another MZM employee, Haig Melkessettian, whom I've written about here before, only got trouble for his complaints to U.S. intelligence agencies about the company's language fraud.
Despite the millions of dollars U.S. counterterrorism agencies are belatedly pouring into Arabic studies now, they may not be giving as much serious thought to it as they should, by Langan's account.
For example, he said, they teach what's called Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), a language concocted to facilitate communication across countries and dialects, "which is used in public speeches and in print media," Langan says, "but nobody speaks it as a living language," i.e., on the street.
He took an FBI test using MSA with other applicants looking for interpreter-translator jobs. Even native speakers had a hard time with it, he says.
"They speak their dialects at home, which can be very different from MSA. Now, the Arabic-speaking targets of surveillance programs also speak dialectical Arabic, because that's the living language. Nobody speaks MSA as a matter of course.
"So the FBI was testing people in a language which almost certainly had little relevance to most of their surveillance programs," he said.
And how does this relate to gays in the military?
According to a Feb. 2005 report from the Government Accountability Office, the Department of Defense has "separated several hundred members with training in important foreign languages. During fiscal years 1994 through 2003, DOD separated 322 service members for homosexual conduct who had some skills in a foreign language that DOD had considered to be especially important."
Among them were 55 soldiers considered "proficient" in Arabic, the GAO said. But as disturbing as a lot of people found that report, the fine print should have -- but didn't -- rile people who are in charge of this war.
Here it is: Of the banished homosexuals, 209 had attended DLI "for training in one of these important languages,' the GAO said.
"Ninety-eight of these 209 completed training and received a proficiency rating, and 62 members (63 percent of the 98) had proficiency scores at or below the midpoint on DOD's language proficiency scales for listening, reading, or speaking."
Two out of three couldn't speak it after they graduated. Only about half of the gay DLI graduates were rated "proficient," GAO said -- and we now know how little that means. Most of the rest had no proficiency at all.
Now that's something to talk about.
As for Langan, he's just finished a novel based on his experiences in Iraq.
"It's called The Freedomization Files,"he said.
"It's a satire."
Jeff Stein is the National Security Editor at CQ.