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The Army's Looking for a Few Good Arabic Speakers

A proposal calls for recruiting Middle Easterners to fill its ranks of linguists.

October 13, 2002|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Faced with a critical shortage of native Arabic speakers, the Army is considering recruiting Middle Easterners into the ranks of its elite Special Forces, defense officials say.

The proposal, which would require congressional approval, has not yet been endorsed by top Army leaders or the Pentagon.

The Army's interest reflects the seriousness of a problem that looms large in the global war on terrorism: The Special Forces are stretched thin, particularly in Arab linguists.

Placing foreigners in the Special Forces has precedent. It was done in the 1950s under the Lodge Act, designed as a mechanism for raising a "foreign legion" of Soviet-bloc expatriates during a time when many in Washington believed that the Soviet Union would invade Western Europe.

Although thousands of applicants under the Lodge Act were rejected, at least 230 anti-communist Eastern Europeans were brought into the first Special Forces unit, the 10th Special Forces Group, in 1952, according to historian Kenn Finlayson. He said the historical record is not clear on when or why the practice ended.

About 5,500 soldiers serve in the five active-duty Special Forces groups. A few hundred operated in the combat phase of the war in Afghanistan, advising and leading anti-Taliban forces and directing U.S. airstrikes.

It is not clear how many foreigners the Army believes it needs to supplement the Special Forces, which are only one segment of the military's special operations branch. Other segments include Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, Air Force Special Operations troops and the Army's Night Stalker aviators.

Army Lt. Col. Rivers Johnson, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Army Special Operations Command is developing a legislative proposal similar to the Lodge Act but emphasizing areas such as the Middle East or Central Asia, where U.S. operatives do not easily blend in.

The Army's interest in recruiting foreigners into Special Forces raises many sensitive political issues, any of which could scuttle the proposal before it reaches Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

One is security. Could the Army adequately guard against hostile Arab nations planting spies in the Special Forces' ranks?

Also, how would foreigners, however well qualified, obtain the necessary security clearances for handling classified information?

Michael Vickers, a former Special Forces soldier and former CIA officer, said he sees promise in the proposal.

Vickers said in an interview, "It's not just linguists -- it's also the cultural awareness" that the force is lacking in the Middle East.

The only Army Special Forces group that focuses specifically on the Middle East and Central Asia is the 5th Special Forces Group, based at Ft. Campbell, Ky. But it has too few people with both the language skills and ethnicity that would allow them to function effectively in hostile Arab areas.

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