All About Defense
A key to the future of our national security is in jeopardy.


Stanley Kurtz

In June, Reuel Marc Gerecht had an important piece out on “The Mullah’s Manhattan Project,” Iran’s plans to manufacture nuclear weapons. One option for dealing with Iran’s emerging nuclear capability is a covert operation. Unfortunately, according to Gerecht, “the educational, linguistic, and cultural requirements for case officers who must run these [covert] programs are vastly too demanding for most of the officers whom [the CIA] can actually field.” The Pentagon might try to run its own covert action against Iran’s nuclear capacity. But there again, says Gerecht, the personnel problems are the same. Along with our inability to quickly translate intercepted transmissions in Arabic from the September 11 hijackers, Gerecht’s story points up the deficit of linguistic and cultural knowledge about the Middle East in our defense and intelligence agencies.

The National Security Education Program is meant to help remedy that deficit. If you want an example of a government program that is truly needed, and properly run, you need look no further than the NSEP. For some time now, I’ve been inveighing against the shameful boycott of the NSEP sponsored by leftist academics who receive government money under Title VI of the Higher Education Act. Now let me tell you about another threat to the NSEP. More important, let me tell you a bit about this program, and why it needs to survive.

For years, leftist-dominated area-studies associations have leveled a boycott against the NSEP. The scholars who back the boycott believe that it is immoral to put their knowledge of foreign languages and cultures at the service of American “power.” Their goal is to get the NSEP transferred out of the Department of Defense and into the Department of Education. That transfer would effectively kill the NSEP.

But now, I’m sorry to say, the administration is in grave danger of playing into the hands of these radical academics. There is a move afoot within the administration to transfer the NSEP out of Defense and into the Department of Education. The plan is the result of a bureaucratic snafu, but the inadvertent error has the potential to kill this critically needed program.

It seems that the Clinton administration had a habit of disguising growth in domestic spending by placing various domestic programs under the umbrella of the Defense Department. Wisely, the Bush administration, has been reshuffling programs that are essentially domestic in content away from the Department of Defense and back into the Cabinet departments where they belong. In general, that’s a good idea. But the NSEP was never part of a plan to hide domestic spending under the rubric of defense. On the contrary, the NSEP is at the Department of Defense for a very good reason.

The NSEP was established by Sen. David Boren. In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, Boren discovered the problem we still have today — a dearth of knowledge of foreign languages and cultures in our defense and intelligence agencies. Unfortunately, area-studies programs funded under Title VI had by then turned into no strings, open-ended entitlements, with little remaining sign of their original connection to national security. So Sen. Boren designed the NSEP to take a targeted approach to funding the study of foreign languages and cultures. The NSEP set out to create a system that would funnel students with knowledge of strategically important foreign languages and cultures into our defense and intelligence agencies.

It worked. That’s because the NSEP insists on clear measures of student performance, requires post-graduate application to national-security-related agencies in return for its scholarships, and keeps clear statistical measures of its progress toward achieving its goals. NSEP scholars study strategically critical regions far more often than the 98 percent of college language students who study European tongues. NSEP scholars also study languages for longer periods of time than most other students. Finally, NSEP-funded students achieve significantly higher levels of proficiency than language students not funded by the NSEP. The high performance of NSEP scholars is particularly impressive, given the fact that the anti-NSEP boycott has discouraged students from some of our finest colleges and universities from joining the program. (Although many students from top universities do enter the NSEP.)

Today, there are former NSEP scholars deployed overseas in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, serving as intelligence specialists with the Air Force, the FBI, the State Department, and with other intelligence agencies that need not be specified here. In short, the NSEP has succeeded in creating a real pipeline of language-competent recruits to our defense and intelligence agencies.

Transferring NSEP to the Department of Education would undo all this. Scholarship programs run out of the Department of Education are generally, to one degree or another, “captured” by their beneficiaries, quickly turning into no-strings entitlements. Only by being housed in Defense can the NSEP continue to push for higher than usual language competence. Only if housed at Defense can the NSEP prevent the broadening and loosening of the post-graduation service requirement to the point where the pipeline to defense and intelligence dries up. Only from Defense can the NSEP avoid damaging competition for funds with Title VI, and other scholarship programs, in an environment where our national security needs are not given priority. And only from Defense can NSEP insist that its scholarship grants stay concentrated on strategically critical areas of the world.

There are good government programs, and the NSEP is surely one of them. Supporters of the war on terror need to urge the Bush administration to save the NSEP by keeping it in the Department of Defense. I plead with the Bush administration to recognize its inadvertent error and take steps to see that the National Security Education Program remains housed in the Department of Defense.

Stanley Kurtz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.