DOD Needs More People with More Languages

Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael G. Vickers, right, speaks with Afghan officials during a trip to Afghanistan. Courtesy photo
Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael G. Vickers, right, speaks with Afghan officials during a trip to Afghanistan. Courtesy photo

DOD Needs More People with More Languages

by: Natela Cutter, Defense Language Institute | .
Foreign Language Center | .
published: June 21, 2012

MONTEREY, Calif., June 20, 2012 – Few people can claim they have been portrayed in a major Hollywood movie as a result of their actions during their government careers. Even fewer can say they contributed to the success of two major covert operations in U.S. history.

Michael G. Vickers, a two-time Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center graduate and the current Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, can take the credit for both, though he is reluctant to admit it.

In the 2007 movie “Charlie Wilson’s War,” Vickers was depicted as a young paramilitary operations officer who contributed with “brains and brawn” in the mid-1980s to the withdrawal of Russian troops from Afghanistan. In more recent history, Vickers has been recognized as a man who was instrumental in the planning, finding, and killing of the world’s most-wanted terrorist, Osama Bin Laden.

But Vickers says it was technology and a combination of human intelligence that really contributed to finding bin Laden.

“Human intelligence, signals intelligence and geo-spatial intelligence all played very important roles. A major part of the challenge of that operation was locating him in the first place, and that was a long time coming -- a very patient intelligence operation,” he explained.

On whether knowledge of language contributed to the success of the operation, Vickers said, “I can’t go into more detail -- but, in each of those disciplines, the ability to have officers or translators who were fluent or very professionally competent in a language made all the difference.”

A firm believer that foreign language knowledge “is critical for our national security,” Vickers, who graduated from the DLIFLC Czech course in 1977 and the Spanish course in 1979, has a good understanding of how vital this language skills are for the success of military operations in the field. He spent three years in Panama in a Special Operations unit in the 1980s, during a time when insurgency and terrorism were at an all-time high in Central and South America.

“I taught classes to Latin American officers in Spanish and I worked with them on operations, so, it [language] not only helped me to communicate, but it also gave me a real insight into how they think and approach problems,” he explained.

He told a congressional hearing in May the United States could benefit by having more Defense Department personnel proficient in foreign languages. “It’s an area [foreign language proficiency], frankly, we still need to improve -- both as an intelligence community and in the Special Operations field. It’s very hard to maintain high levels of proficiency in languages if you’re not using it all the time,” said Vickers, drawing from his own experience as a linguist in Spanish and Czech.

Offering incentives to those willing to maintain high language proficiency may be the answer, Vickers said.

“For example, Secretary of Defense [Leon E.] Panetta, when he was director at the CIA, mandated professional fluency in a foreign language to get promoted. And, it certainly had an impact on the number of people working harder at it,” Vickers said, adding that the key to maintaining a pool of highly proficient linguists depends on the requirements put in place.

“You just have to insist on the standards or it will never happen,” he said.

Vickers reiterated that foreign language instruction and training is vital to national security.

“There is an inherent federal government responsibility, as we learned early in the Cold War with national security education … Government investment in that is very important,” he said.

”A second point I would make is that early language education is critical,” to providing candidates for a pool of seasoned U.S. government linguists.

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