In 2005, Ibrahim Sara, an Egyptian-born man living in New Jersey, signed up with L-3 Communications, a San Diego-based defense contractor that has provided translators and linguists to the US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. The job pays well: for a US citizen, the average salary is $176,000. It’s not known how many translators are currently working in Iraq; L-3 says it has 6,900 employees, a mix of US citizens, Iraqis, and other nationals. But it’s an exceedingly dangerous job. Over a third of the private contractors killed in Iraq, more than 200, have been translators or interpreters. One such casualty was Sara, who died with three Marines on patrol in November of 2006.
The next month, the US Army decided to dump L-3 and award its $4.6 billion, 5-year contract to a new company, called Global Linguist Solutions, which had been formed specifically to compete for this contract. It was headed by two men with extensive experience in languages and national security: the president, James “Spider” Marks, is a retired major general and was senior vice president of McNeil Technologies, another major defense contractor that also competes in the translation market, and its vice president, Michael Simone, was a former intelligence officer and commander of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.
After the Army decided to go with GLS, L-3 protested to the Government Accountability Office, which ruled in favor of L-3. (L-3’s stock price also dropped, and DynCorp and McNeil’s both jumped.) The Army asked the GAO to reconsider its decision, but on June 8 the GAO said it wouldn’t.
The issue had been in limbo until today: INSCOM handed the contract to GLS, again. Will L-3, the incumbent, protest again? We’ll see. Given the GAO’s analysis of the GLS bid (mainly that they didn’t have the expertise), it’s hard to see how GLS could have overcome those criticisms in less than a year. I bet DynCorp investors are happy; that stock moved up 8.8% today on the news.
Underneath this dry account of government procurement are a couple of remarkable things: One, the amount of money involved, especially the $5 billion price tag for the contract. But also, in 2005, L-3 purchased another contractor, Titan, for $2 billion, largely because of Titan’s language service assets. Other companies are also involved: Thomas Computer Solutions, a Virginia-based contractor, received a $730 million contract in late 2006. There are probably others. I would love to know what all goes into “language services” and why it’s so expensive.
Two, we’re used to hearing that the US government faces a shortage of language experts. This isn’t entirely true: the government has all the experts it needs — if it hires them from the contractors. This is a side of the language and national security story that’s never been reported, and even now that private contractors are coming under increasing scrutiny, it’s still not picked up on. Here’s the thing: the translator/linguist shortage in the federal gov’t has always been due to poaching by private contractors, who pay more than federal salaries.
Here’s the other thing: I used to see DARPA projects in machine translation, etc., as a gee-whiz techno fantasy by people who were predisposed to downplaying human contributions. Now I see it as a competitive human resource response. If we only had machines to do the work, we wouldn’t have to give so much $ to the contractors.