Posted by Brad @ 1:07 pm on January 29th 2010

Anti-American CIA Stomping on English-As-Our-National-Language Tradition of American Intelligence Gathering

Leon Panetta announced today that foreign language proficiency is now required for promotion to seniority in the agency.


  1. That’s dumb.

    The skills necessary to be an effective field agent are not identical to those of an effective administrator. It’s like saying that a high school principal should have to be classroom certified in math, or that the chairman of GM should be able to perform an oil and filter change.

    Comment by Rojas — 1/29/2010 @ 1:24 pm

  2. Yeah. But, maybe there’s a trickle-down effect—lower level CIA grunts who envision themselves getting ahead later in their careers, or perhaps making the senior administrators more exposed to other cultures and a tad more relativistic in their ideas of the world.

    Comment by Brad — 1/29/2010 @ 1:31 pm

  3. Actually, this story is activating one of my personal bugaboos with regard to the hiring and promotion process.

    There exists in many fields a sort of credentialist mentality that winnows the field of applicants with a set of arbitrary and often irrelevant hurdles. The idea of minimal qualifications is a reasonable one, of course, but only if the hurdle in question is one that actually directly affects job performance.

    To use my own example: I am, by any objective metric, one of the best competitive speech coaches in my home state. This is demonstrated by the fact that the speakers I train are consistently evaluated, by impartial judges, as better than the speakers that other coaches train. Early in my career, however, I wasn’t able to find a job at a number of schools that were fairly desperate for a speech coach. The reason, as it turned out, was that my official certification was in English, and my formal certification in “speech education” ran only through grade nine. This credential, which was NOT required by the state to coach debate and speech, was nonetheless set up by the administration as a field-winnower. As a result, at least two of the schools that declined to hire me chose to hire coaches who had just been fired by other schools–one of whom was fired, in part, for hosting a student slumber party in her own home.

    The school which eventually hired me evaluated the totality of my credentials and decided that in order to get me, they’d call debate an English class. To avoid any technicality-based problems and to increase my own job flexibility, I obtained formal certification in speech less than a year after getting the job. I have been employed for nine years at the school which hired me. Every person hired by the other schools was gone within three years.

    The slumber party hostess was fired after one year. She was then, due to field-winnowing, hired at still another school, which fired her after one year. And then by another, which ALSO fired her. While a number of excellent potential coaches sat on the sidelines for lack of an arbitrary credential, this woman served for a single year at each of five different schools.

    If your employment system is based primarily upon hoop-jumping, you can expect to wind up with employees who are primarily skilled at jumping through hoops. And, again: this is important if the hoops in question are plausibly related to the job you’re hiring them for. If you are going to hire a CIA field agent translating North Korean wiretaps, then yes, it would be advisable to hire someone fluent in Korean.

    But there is no particular reason why someone in Leon Panetta’s job would need to speak Urdu. It seems to me that you’d want someone skilled in data evaluation and program management, someone versed in the agency’s culture and able to interact effectively with the President. If you make foreign language fluency a precondition to the position–and to the positions which filter upwards towards it–you may very well end up screening out the person who’s best qualified for the job.

    Comment by Rojas — 1/29/2010 @ 1:43 pm

  4. A solid A rant. Thumbs up.

    Comment by Brad — 1/29/2010 @ 1:48 pm

  5. Glad you liked it.

    Thing is: I ended up fine, because I was willing to fight my way through the system, and I ended up matched up with an innovative and flexible administration. The likelihood is that I wouldn’t have been as happy in most of the schools that turned me down.

    But I personally know of at least a solid half-dozen very, very smart people who would have excelled in my speciality field–indeed, some who DID excel, demonstably–and who ended up driven out of education altogether by this sort of thing.

    And that’s setting aside the many thousands of people outside education who are interested in getting in, but who simply don’t have the time or the money to pursue the entry credentials in question. This is, to some extent, by design; those of us who are inside the system won’t benefit from letting a buttload of fresh talent in the door, so we throw up roadblocks where we can.

    But from a systemic perspective, it is undoubtedly a problem. American education is not suffering from a surplus of quality teachers. And the post-Bush CIA, from what we’re told, is not suffering from an excess of administrative talent. Now is not a time for credentialism.

    Comment by Rojas — 1/29/2010 @ 2:06 pm

  6. I’m not familiar with the CIA’s structure but it doesn’t look like someone aiming for Panetta’s job is going to be affected. It says that it applies to analysts and operations officers who wish to advance to the Senior Intelligence Service. I’m not bothered by a policy that says if you want to become an elite analyst, you need to be able to apply your skills to multiple languages.

    In response to the rant, Japan is TERRIBLE for this. My wife was teaching a teacher-training course for students who wanted to get certified to teach Japanese in Japan. She’d taught Japanese at US colleges for about 8 years before teaching this course. But she didn’t have the certification herself, which meant that even though she was qualified enough to certify people, she wasn’t able to get a job teaching Japanese.

    At my school, wages are determined more by age than by position or qualifications. I make less than a colleague in spite of having a PhD (which she doesn’t). She was hired as an Associate Prof (I’m Assistant, which i have no complaints about) based on her age, not her qualifications. I really don’t care what other people make and don’t get bothered by nickel and dime comparisons of salary, but I am bothered by this since it turns out that she’s a pretty crappy teacher to boot.

    Comment by Jerrod — 1/31/2010 @ 2:25 am

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