FBI linguists: On the front line in the war on terror



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Posted on June 11, 2012 at 10:32 PM

DALLAS — It's not likely you could comprehend most threats to our national security.

Not because you're not smart; it's because you can't read Arabic. Or Farsi. Or Somali, depending on the case.

That's why the FBI needs language experts, called linguists.

"The linguists are actually the experts," said Kevin Kolbye, Acting Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Dallas Field Office.

The FBI has 1,500 linguists, more than half added after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. That's when the nation's priorities shifted to anti-terrorism.

That also put a premium on the ability to speak and understand the foreign languages of the nation's enemies.

For example: In the terrorism conviction of Hosam Smadi, who plotted to blow up Dallas' Fountain Place tower, an FBI linguist translated and transcribed Smadi's video to Osama bin Laden. The evidence was later presented in court.

"In anything that we do, accuracy of the facts is the most crucial part of presenting our case in a court of law," Kolbye said.

Moassam Shah is an FBI language analyst, certified in three languages. He has no regrets about leaving a higher-paying job to join the FBI.

"Absolutely. I would not trade this job for anything," he said. "I absolutely love this job."

As part of their job, language experts like Shah are the first to hear audio surveillance recordings — which means, sometimes, they are the first to identify and help thwart a national security threat.

Shah says the job is enormously rewarding, and it pays well, too.

With overtime, the FBI says some analysts can make close to $100,000 a year.

E-mail dschechter@wfaa.com