Author: Jessie Storey, University of Queensland

On September 10 2001, the US National Security Agency (NSA) intercepted intelligence of two Arabic messages sent between individuals with ‘terrorist connections’. On September 11 2001, two planes hijacked by terrorist group Al Qaeda flew into the Twin Towers in New York City, killing nearly 3000 people. On September 12 2001, the messages were translated, one day too late.

A sweeping review conducted after the attack found that the US intelligence agencies were simply not prepared to handle the sheer volume of foreign-language intelligence they collected, resulting in significant backlogs. In fact, for the most critical counter-terrorism languages, the National Intelligence Agencies had a readiness level of only 30%.

These days terrorism is far from Australia’s greatest perceived threat, but our national security faces its own linguistic battles with our increasingly aggressive neighbour, China. As the global order continues to shift, Australia must take a hard look at our language capabilities and ask ourselves if ours are any better than those of the US nearly twenty years ago. Australia faces significant challenges in our capacity to access fluent Mandarin speakers eligible to translate intelligence from China.

According to the 2016 census, over 596,000 people in Australia speak Mandarin, so why is Australia’s ability to translate Mandarin intelligence still an issue?

To be eligible to translate intelligence within Australia’s national security agencies, you need the highest-level ‘Positive Vetting’ (or ‘Top Secret’) clearance, which is notoriously difficult to obtain. Applicants require a background checkable from age 16 and face a process so intrusive that prospective applicants are warned about it before they even apply. As expected, there are significant restrictions placed on persons who have, or may be perceived to have, any connection to a foreign power, including even having family, friends, or associates that are citizens or residents of a foreign country.

These restrictions make it extremely difficult for any Australians with a Chinese background to obtain Positive Vetting clearance. As said by ANU scholar Yun Jiang ‘[obtaining] top security vetting [is] very hard if you’re born in China or have extensive family connections in China.’ Since about 510,000 people in Australia were born in China (not including those born in Australia with Chinese backgrounds), this significantly decreases our pool of potential translators.

The obvious answer is to get more Australians without these foreign connections onboarded. It may come as little surprise, however, that Australians of a non-Chinese background who speak fluent Mandarin in the Australian public service are few and far between. In fact, it’s estimated that there are only about 130 of them who speak Mandarin well-enough to conduct normal work purposes. This is a miniscule amount which should be at the attention of our national security agencies, and arguably already is.

When asked during a 2020 Parliamentary enquiry whether there’s sufficient Mandarin language capability in Australia, Director-General of Security for ASIO Mike Burgess stated that ‘finding people with the right language skills who can pass a security clearance will always be a problem for us’. Whilst he’s satisfied with Australia’s current capabilities, he acknowledges that ASIO relies heavily on the learning and development of its employees and that language skills are ‘an ongoing focus for [ASIO].’

Although ASIO (accounting for only one of Australia’s six security agencies) has enough translators as we stand today, this may change. Where would we stand if actual warfare broke out, where intelligence was no longer used just for policy and back-door diplomatic conversations, but was needed to immediately inform military decision making and save civilian lives? Could we afford to wait just two days, or maybe even longer, for a translation?

To help remedy this problem, some have suggested overhauling the current security clearance process to make it easier for Chinese-Australians to gain security clearances. However, with some already slipping through the cracks of lower vetting levels, including a Department of Defence senior scientist engaging in side-dealings with the Chinese government’s main missile manufacturer, it’s questionable if national security agencies will want to change the supposedly water-tight Positive Vetting process.

We could also attempt to increase the number of Australians without a Chinese background who speak Mandarin by encouraging Mandarin in schools. In recent years only 10% of year 12 Mandarin students have been of non-Chinese heritage and offering them a different ATAR stream may increase uptake. Whilst not every student will study to fluency, it would be much easier to upskill those already with six years of experience should we enter warfare and need all the translators we can get.

Going back nearly twenty years, the intelligence that the NSA collected on September 10 wouldn’t have stopped the 9/11 attacks singlehandedly, even if it was translated in time. But this does go to show that no matter how good our national security agencies are at collecting intelligence, it’s not much good unless we have enough translators to churn through it. As China continues to grow more aggressive and the world continues to destabilise, Australia must acknowledge that our language barrier will become an increasingly gaping hole in our national security, and others will be aware of it. Two decades ago, the two-day delay in translation wasn’t what cost nearly 3000 lives, but it so easily could have been. Does Australia really want to take that risk?

Jessie is a fourth year Law and International Relations student at the University of Queensland who is passionate about the changing nature of Defence and National Security.