Some U students snub FBI, CIA job offers for translation work

Elizabeth Dunbar

Despite U.S. government efforts to recruit speakers of Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages, University students and professors said they do not know of individuals who would take the jobs.

U.S. government agencies such as the CIA and FBI started recruiting Arab-Americans, especially those with Arabic and other Middle Eastern language skills, to work for the government after realizing they were short translators.

“We’ve been letting them know we have these job opportunities,” said CIA spokesman Tom Crispell. The CIA started a new advertising campaign last month targeting communities with large Arab-American populations.

Arab Student Association adviser Ayman Balshe said the advertisements for jobs he has seen on Arab satellite TV channels offer $50,000 to $70,000 as starting pay but give no specifics about the positions’ duties.

“I haven’t met anyone who’s interested in that kind of job,” he said. “All it says is to call a number.”

Mazher Al-Zoby, a graduate student from Jordan studying cultural studies and comparative literature, said the U.S. government cannot be suspicious of Arab-Americans while it also recruits them.

“The government is pursuing a kind of contradictory agenda,” he said.

U.S. government agencies invite Arab-Americans to help in the name of national security, Al-Zoby said, but then ask them to identify people in their own communities who might be linked to terrorism.

“They wanted these people to be informants,” Al-Zoby said, adding that the advertisements promote the government’s view of good citizens. “They’re basically asking them to spy, which alienates the very people they’re trying to recruit.”

After Sept. 11, 2001, Al-Zoby said, a private agency contacted him about doing work for the FBI.

“It was vague,” he said, explaining why he declined the offer. “No one was certain what the task would be.”

Al-Zoby said he has done Arabic translation work before, but is not interested in working for the government.

He added that people who have translated for the FBI or CIA probably would not be allowed to talk about it.

Balshe said he thinks U.S. government policies targeting people of Middle Eastern descent might take away from recruiting efforts.

“I think it’s a factor as to why people aren’t interested,” Balshe said.

Arab students are more likely to pursue jobs and internships with nonprofit community organizations, Balshe said, especially after some antiterrorism policies have targeted individuals from certain countries.

But Hisham Khalek, the University’s only full-time Arabic language instructor, said he would help the government if asked.

“If they needed me, I would volunteer my service as a citizen,” Khalek said, adding that he isn’t interested in a U.S. government job because the University already employs him.

In general, Khalek said, government efforts to monitor foreigners are justified.

“If in the name of national security they need to question people, they have every right to do it,” he said. “If at any point I don’t agree, I don’t have to stay here.”

Crispell said translators are in particularly high demand, but the CIA also needs people with language skills in other positions.

“Depending on what kind of skills they bring to the table, they could do any number of things,” Crispell said.

Bruce Downing, a linguistics professor and director of the College of Continuing Education’s translation and interpreting program, said he is aware of U.S. government recruiting efforts.

Though the University does not currently have an Arabic translation training program, Downing said, government agency recruiters attended an American Translators Association convention in November.

“It was the first time that American Translators Association had a convention where there was dialogue about the need for translators in relation to national security,” Downing said.

He said recruiting in Arab-American populations will not necessarily produce capable translators for government agencies.

“It’s somewhat of a mismatch to find people that simply speak the language,” Downing said. “There’s a gap between speaking the language and being able to translate.”

Elizabeth Dunbar covers international affairs and welcomes comments at

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