Eavesdropping school of the spies

Sun Journal

Languages: NSA and military intelligence officers with an ear for linguistics learn to listen to the world in Arabic, Korean, Chinese, Croatian and the old spy standby, Russian.

January 05, 1999|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

MONTEREY, CALIF — MONTEREY, Calif. -- When Romy Hall enlisted in the Air Force last summer, they asked her if she had any special interests. She checked off the "linguistics" box on the form.

Later, she took a test and scored high enough to be offered the chance to come here: to a hill overlooking the fishing wharves and rolling dunes of this West Coast tourist destination, to a school unlike any other.

The place where spies learn the languages of the world's hot spots.

For more than 50 years the Defense Language Institute and its predecessors have trained military intelligence officers. Today, 3,000 Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps students a year march to and from small classrooms inside barracks from the era of the world wars. Their surroundings and their mission are a world away from the nearby surf 'n' turf of downtown Monterey.

Seventy percent of the school's graduates are bound for employment with the National Security Agency, to help the secretive Fort Meade-based spy agency eavesdrop on the e-mail, cellular-phone conversations, faxes and radio transmissions of the world.

In the past decade, the NSA has played a bigger role at the school, using the latest world crises to determine what gets taught, how and to whom.

Until 1990, more than half the students learned Russian, German or Czech. Then the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union crumbled, and war broke out in the Persian Gulf.

Russian is passe

By 1993, the number of Russian teachers had dropped to 110, down from a high of 300. The number of Arabic teachers doubled to 190. Last year, the school graduated more than 500 Arabic-proficient students, compared with 10 from all other U.S. colleges.

In addition to a huge shift toward Middle Eastern languages, military and economic concerns in China, Korea and Japan have prompted a shift toward Asian languages, too. The number of Korean language teachers has trebled to 130. About 24 languages are now taught here.

Hall is studying Croatian. She's midway through 47 weeks of six-hour-a-day, five-day-a-week training. After graduating in June, she'll go to a West Texas Air Force base for "classified training," to learn how to use the eavesdropping equipment that will become her tools at NSA.

Hall, now an airman first class, said she'll end up at Fort Meade or at an NSA post in England or Arizona. Her classmates will end up all over the world, on submarines, ships or at foreign posts where they'll spy for the agency.

"NSA is the biggest sponsor for our students," says Lt. Col. Roderic Gale, the school's enthusiastic associate provost and dean of students.

Though the mood is similar to that of a typical, though slightly rundown, college campus, students are constantly reminded that there are life-and-death consequences behind their lessons.

Because here, language training isn't about ordering moussaka properly in Thessaloniki.

"Our guys have to get the facts right," Gale says. "Remember, our guys are going into the intelligence community. Hundreds of people could die if one of our linguists doesn't get the facts right."

The school began teaching Japanese to Army soldiers in 1941 in preparation for World War II. In 1946, it was renamed the Army Language School and moved from San Francisco to the Presidio of Monterey, at the foot of John Steinbeck-country hills of garlic and artichoke fields.

During the Vietnam War, the school taught an eight-week Vietnamese "survival" course to more than 20,000 military personnel. By the 1970s, it was mostly teaching Russian.

In 1981, federal lawmakers said a shortage of military officers fluent in third-world languages posed a threat to the nation's intelligence capabilities and urged the Department of Defense to spend more money on language training. But funding has often been in short supply.

"They always seem to think they can cut the [language] training," says Lt. Col. Denise Travers, associate dean of the European I department.

The goal -- established by the NSA and the Defense Department -- is for students to speak at a proficiency "level two," which means being able to understand facts and current events, have conversations, ask questions and speak in past, present and future tenses.

Shortage of proficiency

But Col. Daniel D. Devlin, commandant and commander of the school, said at a seminar in May that a shortage of linguists in the military requires the school to train more students in basic courses, with less emphasis on advanced training.

Reaching proficiency level two, therefore, has become a "difficult goal."

"Achieving it is no small accomplishment for students who begin their studies with no previous experience in their target language," Devlin said in an October newsletter.

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