|David P. Goldman|
Three years ago, the Washington Post sketched the elephantiasis in the U.S. intelligence establishment without, of course, access to the detailed numbers leaked by Edward Snowden last week. It doesn't matter how much money you spend if you can't hire people you can trust. If you spend $52 billion in the "black budget," you create so many conflicting bureaucratic interest groups as to cancel out any possible signal with a wave of noise.
As I pointed out in a 2010 post at First Things, at last count there were fewer than 2,500 Americans studying Arabic at advanced university courses (not counting, of course, the internal training of the U.S. military). Fewer than 250 were studying Farsi. The total pool of truly competent Arab speakers coming out of American universities per year probably is in the low hundreds. How many of these can U.S. intelligence agencies recruit? If we can't recruit translators among Americans whose background is verifiable, we rely on first- and second-generation immigrants from Arab countries whose background is not verifiable. We should assume that our intelligence services are riddled with hostiles. We are Gulliver tied down by Lilliputians.
Israel, by contrast, has a surfeit of Arabic translators — the language is taught in every Israeli high school, and is easy for Hebrew-speakers to master. Israeli friends of mine who were trained as Arabic translators for intelligence work were sent to guard duty in the Negev because the military had too many skilled linguists.
The U.S. has relied extensively on friendly Arab intelligence services, above all the Egyptians, to fill the gap — except that the Obama administration did its best to bring down the Egyptian military in 2011 and install the Muslim Brotherhood. The Israelis have plenty to tell, but little that Washington wants to hear: Israel never fell victim to the mass delusion about the so-called Arab Spring, and has warned throughout (along with Saudi Arabia) that Iran's nuclear ambitions must be crushed. Israel therefore is treated as an intelligence target rather than as a collaborator, while the Arab intelligence services who most might help us — Egyptian and Saudi — must regard us with skepticism in the best of cases and hostility in the worst.
America is flying blind into a hurricane. Americans who write about the Middle East now depend on what other countries choose to leak to us. Washington isn't in the loop any longer.
Mr. Goldman, president of Macrostrategy LLC, is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and the London Center for Policy Research. He is the author of How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too) and the essay collection It's Not the End of the World, It's Just the End of You: The Great Extinction of the Nations.
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