Ask Molly: All Languages are Mission Critical

June 24, 2021


Dear Molly,

I am a first-generation American who is fluent in Spanish. I would love to use my language fluency in a career with CIA, but I’ve heard that CIA prioritizes the hiring of “mission critical” language speakers (Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Pashto, etc.). Does CIA still need speakers of other languages?

~ Spy Talk

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Dear Spy Talk,

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: in order to effectively execute CIA’s global mission, we need officers who are familiar with, and can operate in, every corner of the world. Our success as an organization depends on our people and their ability to address emerging threats, wherever they may be. There is no skill more valuable to reaching that goal than language fluency and cultural understanding, and as a first-generation American and a fluent Spanish speaker, you would bring both to the table from day one.

Your point is well taken, though. A lot of attention in the past decade or more has been paid to “mission critical” languages such as Arabic, Pashto, Russian, Chinese, Farsi, and others. It’s important to contextualize the term “mission critical,” because in the long history of intelligence, languages deemed “mission critical” have shifted quite frequently.

For instance, CIA’s predecessor organization, the Office of Strategic Services, might have called French and German their “mission critical” languages, given the nature of their work in World War II. In the early days of CIA, languages like Burmese and Korean might have been considered “mission critical,” as both were needed for coalition-building and intelligence gathering during the 1950s and 1960s. Russian has, for quite some time, been a “mission critical” language for CIA and in the past few decades, Middle Eastern languages and Chinese have become increasingly “mission critical.”

Through it all, however, CIA has sought to recruit and retain top talent in all languages. We understand that, at any time, global threats and collection opportunities might move in a direction that will shuffle the deck of “mission critical” languages. At CIA, we are always preparing for that eventuality and constantly searching for people who will help us stay nimble and prepared for the next challenge.

So, when you hear that CIA is looking for speakers of “mission critical” languages, it simply means that the ever-changing nature of our mission is momentarily pointed in that direction. It does not mean that we are not interested in speakers of other languages. At all times, we are responsible for understanding issues globally. That means hiring people who are proficient in many languages, not just “mission critical” ones.

Do not underestimate the value that your language fluency and your cultural expertise can bring to CIA’s mission.

~ Molly

ask molly

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