Linguists Speak Many Languages - II

April 9, 2010

On our last program, we talked about the FBI’s Language Services Section in the FBI’s Directorate of Intelligence. Maha Tannous is a linguist, and we asked her how she came to learn of the program and why she came to the FBI?

Audio Transcript

Mr. Schiff: Hello. I’m Neal Schiff, and welcome to Inside the FBI, a weekly podcast about news, cases, and operations. On our last program, we talked about the FBI’s Language Services Section in the FBI’s Directorate of Intelligence. Maha Tannous is a linguist, and we asked her how she came to learn of the program and why she came to the FBI?

Ms. Tannous: “Actually, it’s quite an interesting story. After 9/11 we were all pretty disappointed and angry at what happened and all of the events. My mother, out of wanting to help the FBI, she called the FBI and asked to volunteer and help them out. She asked for an application, they sent her a paper application, and the first thing she saw there was that she has to be a U.S. citizen, which she was not at the time. She approached me and we actually made fun of her. She approached me to apply, and for non-natives—I am from the Middle East, I am from Egypt—the FBI is a very intimidating and very scary word. Law enforcement as a whole is a very intimidating apparatus, but I decided to apply. It did take some time. Two years later, I started my work with the FBI. I actually started as a contract linguist for Arabic. I was working, at the time, for a reputable financial institution. I worked two jobs; I was working part-time at the bank and 20 hours at the FBI. Two years later, the FBI offered me a full-time position. I accepted the full-time position. I found the work extremely rewarding. I won the Language Analyst of the Year award, and last December I applied for a program manager position, and I was selected for the program manager for the FBI.”

Mr. Schiff: Can you describe a past investigation in which your foreign language skill and cultural knowledge played a significant role?

Ms. Tannous: “Yes, an agent reached out to me. He had a target that was Middle Eastern, and along with that target, he had a source, an informant, that he needed to develop a good relationship with to make him understand what he needs and offer the information he is seeking. This agent needed help with cultural matters and religious matters in order to communicate well with that source. In addition to helping the agent with the interpretation, I did interpret all the communication between him and the source. I helped him identify all of the religious nuances, the cultural nuances that were needed in order to gain the trust and the loyalty of that source. This resulted in a good communication between us. They did get good investigation from that target, and, actually, the informant was very impressed with how the FBI has people who understand that much about the culture and the language. That was a very rewarding experience for me that I was able to help in such serious investigation. It was a very high-profile case that the agent has definitely benefited from my culture and my knowledge in arresting the subject.”

Mr. Schiff: Linguist Hasan Gungor came to the FBI with a lot of abilities and talents for this important work.

Mr. Gungor: “As some of our linguists at the FBI, I personally have a diverse background. I lived in Germany, I was raised there, but I was born in Turkey. By the age of 15, I was able to speak three languages; Turkish, German, and English. In Germany they also provide education, once you are in fifth grade, they give you English classes. After I returned back to Turkey, I worked as a tour guide. Besides being in college and studying English literature, during that time I was in contact with many diverse amounts of individuals from all over the world which helped me broaden my cultural knowledge about people, individuals, and countries. Which became very useful during my tenure as an FBI linguist. In addition, I was also working at a hotel, so I had more close contact with individuals from all over the world and more personal conversations at times, what their needs are, what offends them, and this type of knowledge, actually, was also very useful when I was interacting with agents and briefing them on certain cultural nuances including Turkish and German.”

Mr. Schiff: What’s a typical day like for an FBI linguist?

Mr. Gungor: “A typical day, I would consider in two categories. One is typical and one is atypical. Since we do such a variety of work here as FBI linguists, at times, you cannot completely forecast what’s waiting for you or what’s going to happen. You might get a phone call the second hour you are at work, and they need you somewhere individually for interpretation or any different assignment. Your supervisor might ask you, ‘Can you fly to Los Angeles within the next four or five hours? You are really needed over there, can you do it?’ So, in the next four or five hours I can see myself in a flight traveling to Los Angeles; it’s just depending on whether, of course, you are available. That’s why you never know, sometimes you just translate and analyze. You will be called on by FBI officials to interpret for them incase there’s a last-minute interpretation assignment where the Director or any other FBI official needs a person who speaks a certain language. As I said, things can get very unpredictable. And also during a typical day, you interact with special agents, intelligence analysts, and at times, also with other individuals from other agencies who ask you for your assistance. As linguists, since we are subject matter experts, with language capabilities and certain countries we work on. This gives us the chance to interact with other agencies that would like to utilize our subject matter expertise. Also, we provide operational assistance to special agents and intelligence analysts, so at times we see ourselves going to the field and assisting them during operations with our language skills. The bottom line is you go home well, and you sleep well. You know you have contributed to the cause, to the FBI’s mission, and you know you made a difference at the end. This is the satisfaction I get after a typical day as an FBI linguist.”

Mr. Schiff: What are some things you do at your desk that you have to translate or interpret?

Mr. Gungor: “On a daily basis we get tasked with a variety of materials stemming from search warrants, materials from wire taps, crime scene investigations, and we also translate for court and we testify at court as well. Also, at times agents will call us for interviews and interrogations with suspects or witnesses that they would like to talk to, and we will be the interpreters during these assignments.”

Mr. Schiff: Margaret Gulotta is the chief of the FBI’s Language Services Section. We asked her about the future of language services at the Bureau.

Ms. Gulotta: “The world is getting smaller and smaller, and with globalization and transnational crime, we have to be able to communicate in foreign languages around the world. I only see the demand for foreign language skills in the FBI growing in the next 10-15 years.”

Mr. Schiff: The FBI’s Internet page has a list of languages that you are need of.

Ms. Gulotta: “Yes, it does. I really encourage anybody who’s interested in working for us to go to and see which languages we are looking for and what the requirements are for the jobs.”

Mr. Schiff: Now is your chance to help the FBI, your family, friends, and neighbors, and the United States. If you’re interested in becoming a linguist with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, check out and make application. That’s our show for this week. Thanks for listening. I’m Neal Schiff of the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs.

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