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U.S.: Country Faces Huge Backlog In Translating Al-Qaeda, Terrorism Materials

  • Andrew Tully

A new report by the inspector-general of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) says the domestic intelligence agency has a huge backlog of recordings and documents related to terrorism probes that have not been translated. And yet the FBI's budget for such translators is more than three times greater than it was three years ago. At the same time, the number of FBI linguists has risen to more than 1,200 -- a 50-percent increase over the same period.

Washington, 29 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- More than one-third of suspected Al-Qaeda conversations recorded by the FBI were not translated within the 12 hours ordered by the agency's director, Robert Mueller.

Because of this backlog, and the small storage space on FBI computers, a new report has discovered that some of these recordings have been inadvertently deleted to make room for new ones. Meanwhile, many written communications believed to be linked to Al-Qaeda also are not being translated.

Mueller said the FBI takes this task seriously because of a lapse by another U.S. security department, the National Security Agency. The day before the attacks of 11 September 2001, it had Al-Qaeda messages -- including one that said, "Tomorrow is zero hour" -- but did not translate them until several days later.

The report -- by Glenn Fine, the FBI's inspector-general -- seems to support a complaint by Sibel Edmonds, a linguist for the agency. Edmonds said she was fired after she complained to her managers that her fellow translators were doing poor work and that one might even have tipped off a possible terrorism suspect.

Members of both parties in the U.S. Congress have criticized the FBI's performance on translations. But James Carafano told RFE/RL that such criticism is unfair. Carafano studies defense and domestic security issues at the Heritage Foundation, a private policy research center in Washington.
"There's a race between ramping up analytical capacity and ramping up investigatory capacity, and quite honestly it's easier to ramp up investigatory capacity than it is to ramp up analytical capacity, particularly when you're looking in areas of unique need, like language skills." -- James Carafano, Heritage Foundation


Carafano told RFE/RL that the FBI is facing a classic problem -- as any probe gathers more information, it places a heavy burden on those who analyze that information: "There's a race between ramping up analytical capacity and ramping up investigatory capacity, and quite honestly it's easier to ramp up investigatory capacity than it is to ramp up analytical capacity, particularly when you're looking in areas of unique need, like language skills."

And there is the problem of time, Carafano said. It was not until the attacks of 11 September 2001, that America, as a society, saw the need to have its universities produce graduates fluent in Arabic. But even if these universities started focusing on Arabic studies on 12 September 2001, there still would not be enough graduates to help the FBI: "If you build up language skills, and you're chasing the threat 'du jour,' that's a problem, because educational institutions can never crank out people fast enough to meet immediate language needs."

And Carafano wondered, what if the next threat to American security does not involve Arabic, but a different language? Will the United States be ready then? Can any country be prepared?

The solution, Carafano said, is in technology -- software that can translate vocal and written material quickly and accurately. He said programmers are making good progress developing such programs, but conceded that they probably will not be ready soon.

Reforming a government agency, like developing complex software, is time consuming, according to Jamie Metzl. Metzl specializes in domestic security issues as a professor of law at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.

But Metzl said that is no excuse for the FBI to be as slow at it has been in translating intercepted e-mail and conversations: "It may take time, but we might not have time. So we need to do what we can do to be safe. There was information that could have helped prevent [the attacks of] 11 September, and we weren't able to translate it. That's a pretty big deal. And for all of the money that we're spending on all sorts of things like the war in Iraq, we need to be making sure that we're making the smart investments in order to protect ourselves. And this [translation] feels like it's one of them."

Metzl told RFE/RL that the FBI should take advantage of America's ethnic diversity. He was referring to the millions of immigrants who are native speakers of Arabic and other languages relevant to protecting the country from Al-Qaeda and other terrorist threats.

The vast majority of these Americans are loyal, Metzl said, and therefore should be easy to approve for sensitive translation work. The cultural problem Metzl said he sees is not with Arab immigrants, for example, but the old culture within the FBI itself: "Traditionally, the FBI has been cops. And we need the FBI to be a mixture of cops, prosecutors and intelligence officers. We need to change the culture of the FBI. We need to change the culture of our intelligence services, to address the new needs of a new century and a new set of challenges."
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