Interpreters, Intelligence and NATO Missions

Josh Foust has an interesting op-ed in the New York Times on the (mis)management of interpreters and their access to ISAF intelligence. It’s a good piece, and worth a read, especially since it touches on a wide range of mission problems. There are a couple of details that are slightly off the mark, though.

Foust’s principal case study of contractor badness is a company called “Mission Essential Personnel”, which he describes as “the primary contractor providing interpreters in Afghanistan.” That may be the case for hiring/management of interpreters for US forces, but I’d be very surprised if it’s true ISAF-wide. Most ISAF troop contributing nations don’t operate in English, even if it is the mission’s official language.  My experience of NATO operations – and I’ve been on all of them since 1997 – is that interpreter hires are generally managed nationally, in-house, for obvious linguistic reasons.

There are some who are bona-fide mission-hires, which is a different kettle of fish. But German forces need Pashtu-German, not Pashtu-English,  French forces need Pashtu-French, not Pashtu-English, etc, etc, etc. The same logic applies to any contingent large enough or interested enough in the mission to bother with language specialists. So the picture is a pretty heterogeneous one, and I think it’s extremely unlikely that Mission Essential Personnel is doing the interpreter hiring for all the ISAF troop contributors who use them.

That wasn’t really Foust’s point, but it does raise an important question as to how things differ between troop contributing nations when it comes to treatment of their respective contractors. US contractor culture is a peculiar, particular beast, not to be confused with that of other nations. Certainly not in scale, but neither, I suspect, in kind. Most troop contributors simply don’t work with or rely on contractors the same way the US does. But for the ones that do, how much of what Foust describes is symptomatic of the US’s larger contractor culture, as opposed to being a specific ailment suffered by interpreters? An interesting question, and I’d like to see some comparative research done on it.

The last point that I think needs picking at is the fairly clear assertion in the op-ed that security clearance represents an entitlement to consume intelligence. It doesn’t. There are always two ingredients to the intelligence access formula: clearance appropriate to the level of intelligence being consumed, and a justification to access it – ie., a position- or task-related need to know. That term of art, “Need to Know”, get’s maligned incessantly.  It sounds trite, especially to those who’ve never worked in an intelligence role, but it’s a central tenet of the trade, whether or not non-specialists like to hear it.

Authorizing access to intelligence is a discretionary business. That means someone has to exercise  his/her judgment – which isn’t to say, ultimately, that that discretion and judgment will be mature, well-informed, or what have you, or that things aren’t generally overclassified or misclassified. But in the same way that the treatment of interpreters is likely – or at least possibly – symptomatic of the way contractors in general are viewed and treated, so too is the view of “foreigners” more broadly symptomatic of short-term, high rotation mission culture. That means that mistrust – and denied access – are things that can be and have been experienced not just by interpreters, but by all, including US personnel. NATO missions are fraught with those kinds of national complexities, and no amount of command badgering to share more is going to override orders from London, Paris, Berlin, Ottawa, or wherever.

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