It is often said that Americans don’t read. Even worse, it is also said that an American can be identified abroad as the only one who doesn’t speak more than one language. Cleared personnel, much more than others, are called upon to deploy overseas. They go to conferences, seminars, and exhibitions. In many cases, their companies have them live abroad. Not to worry, they suggest, with the advent of Skype and Facebook, it is as if you never leave home. Or is it? What does it mean not to speak, or have access to proper translation, in a given part of the world?

Companies spring up all over the world. Globalization is here to stay. We might establish a small office in a foreign city where the culture is overwhelming. We often don’t know where to begin to fit in to better establish ourselves, our company’s credibility, and  to make our families feel at home. Where do we go, in other words, for news? Why should we care if our clearance jobs can be done easily enough, and no apparent compromise is on the horizon?  What do you know about the reality of your status in the place your company has its office?

Want Local Awareness? Have a Great (Cleared) Translator

After a presentation on force protection, I met the speaker privately as he prepared to leave. “During all that year in Iraq, did you ever completely trust your Iraqi translator?” I asked. The general was momentarily taken aback. He became reflective.  He said, “No one ever asked me that question.” Then, deliberately, he responded “No. No, I never did.”

This candid response speaks volumes about the difficulty of having valid, local awareness. We fail, almost every time if we don’t have someone on our team who is a trained linguist, with a clearance commensurate with our mission. Why is a skilled American translator vital to our services?

One trick the local communist agitators performed during the Cold War was to claim there were ‘atomic weapons’ at a nearby American installation overseas. This was clever for several reasons. First, the mysterious appearance of many pamphlets claiming this put the Americans in a bind. We would never ‘confirm or deny’ the presence of such weapons. Thus our silence ‘proved’ their claim. Secondly, they could agitate and worry the nearby populace almost without interference, because there was little communication between the people and those on the base. Thirdly, even on the off chance one such leaflet fell into American hands, no such American could read these fake warnings. And lastly, the sudden appearance of thousands of demonstrators demanding the ‘removal’ of weapons which may or may not have been there came as a surprise. Only lucky liaison with local police prevented total surprise by a pamphlet campaign organized over weeks by a clever, meticulous adversary. Today, as we’ve seen in Hong Kong and the Ukraine, demonstrations of hundreds of thousands, organized the same way, can take place almost overnight, overwhelming the forces arrayed against them.

What to do when you’re overseas

So what should a cleared agency do overseas? Know your surroundings. Have a daily summary of the local press. Make this available to your staff, who might have insights to add. If any of your personnel are interviewed by a press agency, have them report it. Once the photograph is taken, the story added might be a total fabrication. An incident during a deployment of American military was totally fabricated to make soldiers appear to laugh at a young child run over by our tank. Neither the event, nor the accident, happened. Have someone check local mentions of your cleared company, its activities, and personnel whenever and wherever they find them. Information is power. And knowing what locals are being made to believe about what you are doing is power, too. Stories fabricated online about your projects could bring down not only the project, but the whole enterprise. Lives could be at stake. A favorite ploy is to make our presence a violation of local sacred beliefs. Strange as it might seem, American soldiers were vilified by a secret distribution of false stories that the ubiquitous sunglasses worn by our soldiers in the middle east allowed them to view the forbidden nude form of local women. Simple. Insidious.

General “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell, in frustration with the competing, self- interested, and conflicting reports he received in the 1930s from various Kuomintang Chinese officials, finally resolved his problem. He found three American officers, each fluent in Mandarin, to serve as his eyes and ears across China as he tried to fulfill his mission to advise President Roosevelt. Today is no different. We need to plan for knowing the local environment. Are our employees seen to be inconsiderate of local customs? Are we seen as brash, uncaring about customary practices and ignorant of taboos? We can learn, and learn we must. We must consult every outlet we can manage. Our embassies, consulates, and expatriates living abroad can help. Companies long established with a good reputation can assist us in learning the ways of local business practices. News outlets with an established reputation are also valuable, although we must remember that their job is not our job. Understanding local beliefs is paramount. Knowing what is correct behavior in a given country is of great value.

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John William Davis was commissioned an artillery officer and served as a counterintelligence officer and linguist. Thereafter he was counterintelligence officer for Space and Missile Defense Command, instructing the threat portion of the Department of the Army's Operations Security Course. Upon retirement, he wrote of his experiences in Rainy Street Stories.