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The Language of Espionage

“We’re investing in foreign-language excellence as a core attribute for our officers. We’re strengthening our language training to ensure that our people are more capable and better attuned to the cultures in which they operate.”

~ CIA Director Gina Haspel

Deep expertise in foreign languages is fundamental to CIA’s success. Whether an officer is conducting a meeting in a foreign capital, analyzing plans of a foreign government, or translating a foreign broadcast, language capability is critical to every aspect of our mission. Language skills are the keys to accessing foreign societies, understanding governments, and decoding secrets. Below, we pull back the invisible curtain to provide a glimpse into the significance of foreign language capabilities and what their mastery can accomplish.


Combating Terrorism: Matthew KevIn Gannon

Matthew Kevin Gannon was number eight of ten children. He had a deep interest in Arab culture and this interest propelled him to spend his senior year of college studying abroad in the Middle East and Europe, earning a degree in International Relations. Soon after graduating, Matt became interested in the CIA. He saw the Agency as the perfect venue to utilize his foreign language capabilities.

Matt joined the Agency as a junior Operations Officer. He continued to study the Arabic language and was rated as an “exceptional” student. He tested at the 2+ and 3 levels (5 representing a native speaker) for speaking and understanding a foreign language, an incredible feat for someone who had less than two years of formal study of this difficult language.

Matt was assigned to the Near East Division and quickly gained a reputation for his quick mind and language abilities. While serving in a small, but active station in the Middle East, Matt received a special achievement award for outstanding performance.

Matt eventually came back to Washington, serving in the Counterterrorism Center as a deputy branch chief working against terrorist groups. As an Arabist by training with nearly a decade of experience working on the Mideast, Matt was a major asset to the Center. He had mastered the key elements of the Arabic language and had a solid grasp of Arab culture. He had also succeeded in recruiting an asset in one of the most notorious international terrorist organizations.

Matt was one of only a handful of case officers who possessed the language and operational skills required for many sensitive assignments.

“[Our officers’] accomplishments demonstrate the powerful advantage gained by intelligence officers with true command, true proficiency in a foreign language. These are men and women who, because of their language ability, have an incisive understanding of what they see and hear in their assigned country.”

~ Former CIA Director David Petraeus presenting the Foreign Language Excellence Award, April 20, 2012.

A Love for Linguistics: Joe Procaccino and Ambassador Hugh Montgomery

Both Joe Procaccino and Hugh Montgomery served under General Donovan, the director of the Office of Strategic Services, and 20 subsequent CIA Directors. Both entered the world of intelligence on the strength of their foreign language skills.

Joe was born in Italy and graduated from the City College of New York with a major in linguistics. In December 1942, a US Army Colonel was in New York interviewing students with strong linguistic inclinations to take Japanese. Joe seized the opportunity and was accepted into the Military Intelligence Service, studying Japanese. While serving in post-war China, Joe left his military job and joined the OSS and continued on after the establishment of the CIA in 1947. Described by former CIA Director George Tenet as “The Father of All Reports Officers,” Joe invented, authored, or pioneered many of the information management policies and procedures still in use today.

Hugh followed in his mother’s linguistic footsteps and learned eight languages fluently. While in Germany and Austria he claimed to be the son of German parents who had immigrated to South America, a cover story supported by his fluent Spanish. Hugh spent 24 of his 28-year career serving overseas in Moscow, Rome, Paris, and Vienna. As Deputy Chief of Station in Moscow, during the height of the Cold War, Hugh was involved in handling the agent who many believe was the most valuable Russian asset ever run by the Agency, Colonel Oleg Penkovsky. Hugh was given the rank of Ambassador, a rare honor for an Agency officer, and was asked by his friend and former Deputy Director of CIA, General Vernon Walters, to serve as his deputy at the United Nations.

Both Joe and Hugh received the Distinguished Intelligence Medal along with several other prestigious awards.

“Language is the window through which we come to know other peoples and cultures; mastery of a second language allows you to capture the nuances that are essential to true understanding... This is not about learning something that is helpful or simply nice to have. It is crucial to CIA’s mission.”

~ Former CIA Director Leon Panetta addressing the Foreign Language Summit, December 8, 2010.

Translating History: Vernon A. Walters

President Nixon appointed General Vernon Walters as Deputy Director of Central Intelligence (DDCI) in 1972. Vernon spoke French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, Dutch, Chinese and Russian fluently. The first three languages he learned as a child living in Europe. Vernon never had any formal academic training nor did he ever attend university.

Vernon loved languages and enjoyed a friendly competition with fellow linguists. He would engage two others in conversation and each time a person spoke they had to talk in a new language, once you ran through your repertoire of languages, you were eliminated.

Vernon joined the Army in 1941 and served in Africa and Italy during World War II, earning medals for distinguished military and intelligence achievements. In the 1960s, he served as a US military attaché in France, Italy, and Brazil. He went on to become US Ambassador to the UN and then to West Germany.

His linguistic skills afforded him a myriad of opportunities. He served as an interpreter for President Truman during key meetings with America’s Spanish and Portuguese speaking Latin American allies. He served as a translator to President Eisenhower and other top US officials at a series of NATO summit conferences. His simultaneous translation of a speech by Nixon in France prompted President Charles de Gaulle to say, "Nixon, you gave a magnificent speech, but your interpreter was eloquent."

Vernon also translated for President Lyndon B. Johnson, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Pope John Paul II, amongst many other interesting figures.

As DDCI, Vernon dealt with major international developments including the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the turbulent end of the Vietnam conflict, and the Chilean military coup against the Allende government.

“By and large we’re a single language country. Most other countries you go to, you will find that they do not have the luxury of being a single language country.”

~ Former CIA Director Porter Goss speaking at the opening ceremonies for the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language, October 6, 2005.

Interested in using your language skills at CIA?
Check out these employment opportunities:

While the language-professional positions offered at CIA may be the first to come to mind, officers in all positions at the Agency have the ability to contribute their language skills to protecting the nation.

  • Click here to learn more about our foreign language incentives, including monetary bonuses for new and current employees who meet foreign language proficiency requirements.

To learn more about the people featured in the stories above, see:


Posted: Oct 22, 2018 11:59 AM
Last Updated: Oct 22, 2018 12:58 PM