FBI Recruiting Class Shows Language Diversity

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. intelligence community has tried to find agents who speak such languages as Arabic and Farsi. A $1.5 million recruiting campaign by the FBI seems to have paid off.

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Ever since the 9/11 attacks, U.S. intelligence agencies has been trying to find agents who speak critical languages like Arabic or Farsi. They launched a $1.5 million recruiting campaign that seems to have paid off - the newest class of would-be FBI agents is described as the bureau's most language diverse ever.

NPR's FBI correspondent Dina Temple-Raston reports.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Four of the FBI's newest recruits are sitting in steel-reinforced police car with crash helmets on. They're listening to supervisory special agent Lee Wetzel(ph), who is teaching them how to drive like they do in cop shows.

Mr. LEE WETZEL (Special Agent, Federal Bureau of Investigation): Again, the hardest part about this is being able to keep that speed under control.

(Soundbite of beeping)

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Wetzel accelerates and begins weaving the car through series of orange cones spaced 17 feet apart. The recruits instinctively reach for the steel bars reinforcing the inside of the car.

Mr. WETZEL: At the risk of throwing you around too much (unintelligible) you got a pretty good speed going...

TEMPLE-RASTON: Wetzel pulls the car over, turns around, and asks for volunteers. The recruits are still clutching the metal bars around them. This might all seemed like part of a very ordinary day at FBI training center in Quantico, Virginia, and in some ways it is.

But there is one important difference. The men and women sitting in these cars in their matching navy blue shirts and khaki pants are what the FBI calls language hires. They are first or second-generation Americans who speak languages like Arabic or Chinese or Russian.

Ms. GWEN HUBBARD (FBI): Last December we decided we needed to dedicate even more emphasis not only on recruiting but on tracking the language candidates.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Gwen Hubbard of the FBI. She's been one of the forces behind the language recruitment effort. With over 70,000 job applications pouring into the bureau a year, Hubbard said language applicants tended to get lost in the shuffle. So the FBI created a different track to get them through the hiring process faster.

Ms. HUBBARD: These particular candidates were on what we call our critical hire special agent list, which means they have these special skills. We need them in like yesterday. Let's do everything we can to get these individuals through the process as soon as we can.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Hubbard says there are about 300 candidates on that language critical hire list at any one time.

Islam(ph) is standing among a group of recruits waiting their turn behind the wheel of the FBI practice car. The FBI asks that only the first name of the recruits be used to protect their identity. Islam is 27 and grew up mostly in Detroit, Michigan. He moved to the U.S. from Cairo, Egypt, when he was 12 years old. He speaks fluent Arabic and he says he's always had an eye on an FBI career.

ISLAM (FBI Special Agent Candidate): Other than being a dream of mine as a little kid, of course, after obviously September 11 I feel like I have some assets as far as the language skills. I can definitely give back to the country, which has been very good to me and my family.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Carl is 36, blond, and freckled - he grew up in Las Vegas, and then went to Brigham Young University where he majored in Mandarin Chinese. After school he was a Chinese language tour guide at the Grand Canyon and then worked at a technology company. And then he signed on to the FBI.

CARL (FBI Special Agent Candidate): You know, I really thought it would be a great opportunity for me to utilize the Chinese skills that I had. And I've always had a strong feeling that I wanted to do something, you know, to combat the evils that are in the world, and the FBI would provide that opportunity for me.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Victoria is 27, and she speaks Russian. She came to the States from Russia to attend graduate school at University of Buffalo. She said she has always considered law enforcement as a career, but after September 11th she felt that the FBI was the best fit. She says that she wants to fight terrorism, and then she giggles and admits to another reason for joining the FBI.

VICTORIA (FBI Special Agent Candidate): Well, of course, everyone thinks it's cool. It is cool, yes.

TEMPLE-RASTON: As proud as the FBI is of this class, they have even more to look forward to next month. On August 5th they begin training a new class. It has 18 new language hires. Their hiring goal for the year is 51, and they're almost there.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Washington.

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