Federal agencies should hire linguists

Vulnerable global oil routes are subject to terrorist attack, and communication is key.

Arabic language enrollment experienced a big increase after Sept. 11, 2001, but the federal government still faces massive linguistic shortages. In years to come, our dependence on imported oil will converge with the threat of terrorism. The U.S. Congress must give federal agencies added financial support and bureaucratic flexibility to meet this challenge.

More than half of the oil consumed in the world travels by massive tankers through six narrow waterways. The four top waterways for transportation are the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz in the Middle East, the Strait of Malacca in Indonesia and the Bosporus Strait in Turkey.

The straits around Saudi Arabia are obvious hotspots, but even Turkey, relatively calm by comparison, suffered a terrorist attack this year. Indonesia holds the world’s largest Muslim population and also suffered numerous terrorist attacks since Sept. 11. To ensure the transit of oil and global economic stability, the United States must train and recruit people who speak Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Indonesian languages.

A disruption in global oil shipments would almost certainly cause a major economic crisis because of marketplace panic, particularly if U.S. citizens knew we lacked an effective capacity to address the problem. Last year, a joint congressional committee found that U.S. agencies, before Sept. 11, were 70 percent below their total capacity for employees with language skills critical to national security. The report also determined the shortfall contributed to our inability to thwart the attack.

Federal agencies must be given increased authority to hire outside the normal federal procedures. The hiring process is so complex, convoluted and insular that many qualified people cannot find federal jobs or navigate the system. In addition, the process often ties the hands of most federal hiring agents who, unlike private industry managers, are subject to infinite bureaucratic oversight and cannot simply interview a candidate and hire them.

Recent legislation to speed up hiring for Homeland Security is not enough. In the absence of ubiquitous electric cars and magnetic hovercraft, the United States must act quickly if we want to be prepared for our next big challenge.