“We’re investing in foreign-language excellence as a core attribute for our officers. We’re strengthening our language training to ensure that our people are more capable and better attuned to the cultures in which they operate.”
CIA Director Gina Haspel
“[Our officers’] accomplishments demonstrate the powerful advantage gained by intelligence officers with true command, true proficiency in a foreign language. These are men and women who, because of their language ability, have an incisive understanding of what they see and hear in their assigned country.”
Former CIA Director David Petraeus presenting the Foreign Language Excellence Award, April 20, 2012.
“Language is the window through which we come to know other peoples and cultures; mastery of a second language allows you to capture the nuances that are essential to true understanding… This is not about learning something that is helpful or simply nice to have. It is crucial to CIA’s mission.”
Former CIA Director Leon Panetta addressing the Foreign Language Summit, December 8, 2010.
Working in the shadow will probably not improve your communication skills. But a recent piece posted on the CIA website demonstrates that the Agency is completely incapable of articulating even the simplest message. In the spooky world of espionage, language skills matter greatly. Here is the story of a CIA linguistic blunder that is still haunting the Agency. Follow us on Twitter: @INTEL_TODAY
RELATED POST: CIA to Recruit Korean Speakers — Do you know your ABC?
On October 22 2018, a story titled “The Language of Espionage ” was posted on the CIA website. The purpose of that piece was to convince the readers that is very important for CIA officers to master a foreign language.
As an example, they tell the readers that one of their officers — named Matt Gannon — was one of only a handful of case officers who possessed the language and operational skills required for many sensitive assignments. The short bio of Matt Gannon was also tweeted by the CIA. Part reads:
Matthew Kevin Gannon had a deep interest in Arab culture and this interest propelled him to spend his senior year of college studying abroad in the Middle East and Europe, earning a degree in International Relations.
Matt joined the Agency as a junior Operations Officer. He continued to study the Arabic language and was rated as an “exceptional” student.
During his career, Matt mastered the Arabic language and had a solid grasp of Arab culture. He also succeeded in recruiting an asset in one of the most notorious international terrorist organizations.
From the replies, it is absolutely obvious that most, if not all, readers were baffled by this story. Here are some of the comments:
“Is this on his tinder?”
“He also likes long walks on the beach?”
“I love ice cream and cats.”
“So, like, ah, are we supposed to know this?”
“Yeah like that’s his real name…”
Lost in Translation?
Perhaps, the readers would have understood the story a bit better if the CIA had not forgotten to explain what Gannon was doing at the time of his death and how he died.
Matthew Kevin Gannon was killed in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 at the age of 34. He was returning from Beirut, Lebanon where he was the Station Chief.
Although the CIA denied for many years having any officers on Pan Am 103, this is no longer a secret. In May 2012, the CIA officially confirmed that Gannon was a CIA officer.
He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery and honored with a star on the CIA Memorial Wall.
The Language of Espionage
Deep expertise in foreign languages is fundamental to CIA’s success. Whether an officer is conducting a meeting in a foreign capital, analyzing plans of a foreign government, or translating a foreign broadcast, language capability is critical to every aspect of our mission.
Language skills are the keys to accessing foreign societies, understanding governments, and decoding secrets.
Below, we pull back the invisible curtain to provide a glimpse into the significance of foreign language capabilities and what their mastery can accomplish.
Combating Terrorism: Matthew KevIn Gannon
Matthew Kevin Gannon was number eight of ten children. He had a deep interest in Arab culture and this interest propelled him to spend his senior year of college studying abroad in the Middle East and Europe, earning a degree in International Relations. Soon after graduating, Matt became interested in the CIA. He saw the Agency as the perfect venue to utilize his foreign language capabilities.
Matt joined the Agency as a junior Operations Officer. He continued to study the Arabic language and was rated as an “exceptional” student. He tested at the 2+ and 3 levels (5 representing a native speaker) for speaking and understanding a foreign language, an incredible feat for someone who had less than two years of formal study of this difficult language.
Matt was assigned to the Near East Division and quickly gained a reputation for his quick mind and language abilities. While serving in a small, but active station in the Middle East, Matt received a special achievement award for outstanding performance.
Matt eventually came back to Washington, serving in the Counterterrorism Center as a deputy branch chief working against terrorist groups. As an Arabist by training with nearly a decade of experience working on the Mideast, Matt was a major asset to the Center. He had mastered the key elements of the Arabic language and had a solid grasp of Arab culture. He had also succeeded in recruiting an asset in one of the most notorious international terrorist organizations.
Matt was one of only a handful of case officers who possessed the language and operational skills required for many sensitive assignments.
Libya and Lockerbie?
The majority of Intel Today readers –92% — believes that the Lockerbie case is a spectacular miscarriage of Justice.
Even at the CIA, many old timers know that Libya had no role whatsoever in the Lockerbie tragedy. As former CIA officer Robert Baer once told me:
“Regarding the CIA people in Malta who knew about Giaka… I asked them what the fuck was going on. And they said: ‘We took one for the team, by making up this stuff about Libya.’
That was their exact words, ‘we took one for the team’.
Meaning they knew Giaka [The Lockerbie Trial ‘Star’ witness] was a fraud, a swindler.”
Later Baer added:
“Look — in the intelligence community — I’m not giving you a controversial opinion here.
I kept up with all of the CIA, National Security Agency analysts, everybody involved in the intelligence side, and to a man nobody has ever said to me that it was Libya”.
The Lockerbie Forgery — What Happens When CIA Linguists Blunder
PT/35(b) is a small fragment of a timer circuit that was allegedly found among the debris of Pan Am 103 near the town of Lockerbie.
According to Richard Marquise — the FBI Agent who led the US side of the Lockerbie investigation — this fragment was absolutely critical to the investigation.
“Without PT/35(b), there would have been no indictment.”
After more than ten years of investigation, I have come to the conclusion that PT/35(b) is a forgery that was planted among the debris to implicate Libya in the bombing of Pan Am 103 and to steer the investigation away from the original suspects.
Considering that this forgery forced Libya to pay US$ 2.7 billions, you would think that the forger(s) could have done a slightly better job. So why the mistake?
The first THURING boards — used to make the timer circuit delivered to Libya — were ordered by MEBO (Ulrich Lumpert) to THURING on 13 August 1985. Although 20 were ordered, 24 were actually delivered on 16 August 1985.
The order specifies that the boards should be “solder masked” on one side [Lötstopp eins.(eitig)] with “No bore holes”. And the tracks should be “Tin plated”.
Notice the word “ZINN” (Tin). However, in this technical field, neither “Zinn” in German nor “Tin” in English actually means ‘Tin’ in a literally sence. It is just “slang” for covering the tracks with ‘something’ that will help the soldering of electronic components.
REPEAT — It is just slang for the process of covering the copper tracks! And this does not tell anyone anything about the material itself, whether pure Tin or a Tin/Lead alloy.
In the case of these Thuring boards, it was actually a mix of Tin and Lead (70% SN/30%Pb).
This is absolutely crucial to the Lockerbie case because we now know that the PT/35(b) copper tracks are covered with pure Tin!
I suggest that the forger was simply not aware of this basic fact. Or perhaps, he got “lost in translation”?
I would like to add that several — real and qualified –experts had correctly pointed out that PT/35(b) was not similar to the THURING boards.
And some of them clearly suggested the proper way to reach a definitive conclusion about this issue. But the investigators never followed up on these experts’ recommendations.
We are the Linguists of the CIA
The Language of Espionage — CIA Website
CIA — The Language of Espionage [Lockerbie & The CIA Darkest Blunder]