ICD 630 and the “Avatar” Syndrome

July 14, 2012
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

On 14 May 2012 President Obama’s Director of National Intelligence issued a directive stating the obvious:

1. Foreign language capabilities are essential to the performance of intelligence missions and operations.

2. The development and implementation of an integrated approach for ensuring the continuous availability of foreign language capabilities is necessary to achieve IC [Intelligence Community] mission objectives. 

The directive is filled with bureaucratic gobbledygook that is difficult to translate into ordinary English but appears to be aimed at establishing new positions, rules and procedures to address the intelligence community’s long-standing problem acquiring and retaining analysts with advanced foreign language skills.

Six years ago I wrote an article called “Lost in Translation” for The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists on problems I noticed in the U.S. intelligence community’s use of Chinese language materials. In the footnotes you will find references to an earlier set of GAO and Defense Department reports lamenting the sorry state of the foreign language capabilities within the agencies responsible for formulating and implementing U.S. foreign and defense policy. The reports argue serious language deficiencies have been evident for decades. They also describe a variety of failed reforms attempted by previous administrations. Ambassador Michael Lemmon, a dean of the School of Languages at the Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute, describes one such effort in a 2007 address on the “Language Continuum Project”. It reads a lot like the text of ICD 630.

If the Obama administration wants to succeed where its predecessors have failed, it will need a new approach.

One hopeful sign is that ICD 630 recognizes there is a connection between foreign language capabilities and “cultural awareness and understanding.” The difficulty for the U.S. intelligence community is that acquiring cultural awareness requires time spent living and working in the culture you are trying to understand. Obtaining even a basic level of cultural awareness takes many years of day-to-day involvement in the target culture. Many potential U.S. intelligence analysts find it difficult if not impossible to spend the required time abroad.

Another more serious and difficult-to-resolve issue facing analysts is that the U.S. intelligence community’s interest in foreign cultures is rooted in the perceived threats to U.S. national security from the cultures analysts are attempting to understand. Intelligence officers who seem too friendly, understanding or respectful of a suspect culture or country are often accused of bias, or worse. 

You could call it the Avatar syndrome. The more common and derisive sobriquet used within U.S. intelligence circles is “gone native.”

Analysts who put in the time it takes to develop a high level of cultural expertise inherently acquire equally high levels of empathy and respect for the country or culture they are working to understand. Rewarding that effort with ridicule or suspicion is counterproductive if the goal is to retain analysts with advanced foreign language and intercultural communication skills.

Research in the field of cross-cultural education has not been well incorporated into the efforts of the U.S. intelligence community to improve cultural awareness or foreign language capabilities. If it had been, the term “gone native” would seem as offensive as many of the other ethnic epithets we have grown respectful enough to discontinue using in common discourse. 

Removing the stigma embodied in the expression “gone native” is a prerequisite for reforming the intelligence community’s approach to foreign language and cultural studies. If the bureaucratic labyrinth of authorities and incentives articulated in the Obama administration’s new directive could effect this one simple change in the intelligence community’s own culture, implementing the directive would be well worth the effort. Trying to improve those capabilities while this institutionalized partis pris remains unchallenged is futile.