By Stafford Hemmer
In an attempt to widen the scope of qualified volunteer language professionals in the wake of the September 11th attacks, the U.S. government in 2004 instituted the Civilian Language Reserve Corps. In this first of a two-part series, we examine the CLRC’s history and mission. In the concluding segment, in the September Translorial, we’ll hear from many parties involved in this unusual effort to invigorate America’s foreign language abilities.
In July 2006, NCTA members who also belong ATA received an email appeal from ATA President Marian Greenfield. As a follow-up the ATA’s successful response to the Red Cross request for volunteers, Ms. Greenfield extended an invitation to interested translators and interpreters to consider joining the national Civilian Linguist Reserve Corps. “CLRC volunteers may be called upon during a national crisis of one sort or another, such as supporting preparations for evacuations before and after natural disasters,” she explained. According to the CLRC’s own mission statement, the Corps aims “to provide and maintain a readily available civilian corps of certified expertise in languages determined to be important to the security of the nation.”
The Corps is operated today under the auspices of the National Security Language Initiative, launched by the Bush Administration in 2004 as an endeavor to “dramatically increase the number of Americans learning critical-need foreign languages.” In this context, “critical need” refers to nine specific languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindu, Korean, Urdu, and Farsi. The NSLI is a department of the U.S. Departments of State, Defense, and Education, as well as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The initiative is comprised of: 1) programs to encourage the learning and teaching of foreign languages; 2) scholarships, exchanges, and projects to promote international learning and exposure; 3) the creation of “feeder programs” to educational institutions, from kindergarten through university level; and finally 4) “strategic partnerships” between the national government and U.S. universities to promote instruction in “critical languages.” The CLRC itself falls under this latter prong of NSLI agenda. In fiscal year 2007, the Bush administration requested $114 million from Congress to fund this program.
The National Guard model
On the face of it, and as reflected by Ms. Greenfield’s email, this battalion of linguists should operate like the National Guard, except that it will take command of language-related issues instead of public disorder during national crisis situations. Its genesis actually precedes the NSLI itself, in a proposal to Congress in 2001 by the National Security Education Program of the Department of Defense’s National Defense University. Following the government-funded initial feasibility study, NSEP’s Dr. Robert Slater, in his testimony of April 1, 2004, asked the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to “consider how effective and beneficial it would have been for the nation if, on September 12, 2001, the Director of the FBI had been able to request an immediate call-up of a select number of Arabic specialists who were commissioned as part of a Civilian Linguist Reserve Corps.”
Dr. Slater’s words had their effect on Capitol Hill. When the feasibility study, operational plan, and implementation plan were completed, the time had come in mid-2006 to launch the CLRC’s pilot program. Over the next three years, the Corps’ goal is to assemble a list of no fewer than 1,000 linguists by the year 2010 in the nine critical-need languages. Enrolled language professionals would be matched to the requirements stipulated by the more than 80 federal government departments, bureaus, and agencies that need their service. Reservists have to be certified not only in terms of language acumen, but also in terms of their national loyalty, in order to garner the necessary U.S. Government security clearance. With that imprimatur, members of the Corps would be available to take on sensitive defense-related work. Skills will have to be maintained and certified on a consistent basis. In exchange for the demanding level of paperwork, background clearance, and ongoing skills maintenance, the candidates in the program would be treated as federal civilian employees, receiving pay, benefits, and other incentives when finally called into service.
Mobilizing the Corps
According to a press release during the feasibility stage, the Corps was touted as an opportunity for U.S. civilians to help out during national emergencies—hurricanes Katrina and Rita being recent examples of such situations. To be clear, the CLRC would not be a military reserve; its members would have the right to refuse deployment, but should they do so, they would be required to reimburse the government for their training and education. Despite the non-military nature of the Corps’ charter, however, there appears some evidence that the Department of Defense’s intentions for this program may include grooming these language specialists to work on more delicate security matters—such as, for example, interrogations of so-called “enemy combatants” in the war on terror. Whether this falls within the purview of a “volunteer” corps is a matter for further investigation. 3