The investigation into possible spying by interpreters and translators at the U.S. Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, raises the possibility that the suspects may have deliberately mistranslated statements by terrorism suspects being held at a special prison there. It is well known that the U.S. government employs few people fluent in Arabic, which may have led the military to bring in interpreters without proper background checks.
Washington, 9 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Of the three men being held on suspicion of espionage at Guantanamo Bay, one is an interpreter, the other a translator. The third is a Muslim chaplain. Three more people are said to be under surveillance -- two of them also involved in Arabic translation.
As a result, investigators reportedly are comparing written translations with tape-recorded interrogations of some of the 660 suspected Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters who are being held at the American base in Cuba.
The U.S. Defense Department is saying little about the probe, but on 2 October, the country's chief military officer -- General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- indicated during a press briefing in Washington that the Pentagon knows much more about the case than might be apparent from its public statements.
"We had -- I'll just say 'things' in place, counterintelligence capabilities in place, we have a vetting process and so forth. And I think the fact that some people have been apprehended and [accused of] these very serious crimes is an indication of some of the good news," Myers said.
But catching saboteurs after the fact cannot undo the damage they may have done while still working for the military. And it has become clear that the Pentagon was not able to conduct interviews with suspected terrorists as efficiently and as thoroughly as it would have liked, simply because of the lack of staff members who speak Arabic.
Intelligence and law enforcement experts agree that two interpreters are needed to ensure a proper interview with a witness or suspect who speaks another language. The reason is not only to keep a single interpreter from deliberately mistranslating, but also to prevent inadvertent mistakes.
And a single mistake in the translation of just one question, or one answer, can quickly lead an interview down the wrong path.
Retired U.S. Army Colonel Kenneth Allard served as a U.S. intelligence officer. He tells RFE/RL that in a "perfect world" -- as he put it -- all dual-language interviews conducted by intelligence officers would have two interpreters present. But the war against terrorism, he says, is being fought in a world that is far from perfect.
"As a practical matter, we don't have nearly enough Arabic speakers that we have access to. I would love to have two of them present any time that you do an interview. It's just that much harder to put something over if you have two witnesses there," Allard said.
The problem, according to Allard, is a culture of what he calls "anti-intellectualism" in the U.S. military, particularly the dominant service, the army.
"One of the sins of the army -- what we have not done a particularly good job of -- is producing enough foreign-area specialists -- enlisted [personnel] and officers both -- people whose basic skill in the army is understanding something about the societies and the cultures in which we have to fight," Allard said.
Allard says personnel with expertise in foreign languages and cultures are often viewed with suspicion by senior army officers. He says such attitudes can exact a heavy price, perhaps being paid now at Guantanamo Bay.
Allard says such attitudes are especially bothersome in a country populated by immigrants from all over the world.
"It is just remarkable to me that in the world's most proudly diverse society, we are so stupid that we cannot get these guys in uniform, keep them there, reward them for their expertise in the area in which we have the strongest interest," Allard said.
This dearth of translators is not limited to the American military, according to Theresa Hitchens, the vice president of the Center for Defense Information, a nonpartisan policy research center in Washington.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Hitchens says the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001 dramatized the American intelligence community's inability to deal with a backlog of information -- written and oral -- that it did not have the resources to translate.
"I think there is a disconnect, and it's not only in the military, though. It's also in the U.S. intelligence community. Witness after 9/11 how the FBI [U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation] was going insane trying to find interpreters -- the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] the same. They don't have people who speak the language. They were actively recruiting [translators]," Hitchens said.
Hitchens agrees with Allard that the problem is particularly egregious at the Pentagon, which fought the first Gulf War 12 years ago, changing the color of its camouflage fatigues from forest green to sandy brown to reflect an awareness that its battlefield had shifted since the end of the Cold War.
And yet, Hitchens says, the generals and their civilian superiors did not take what might have been the more important step of becoming better prepared culturally, including linguistically.
"The people who run the U.S. military are a lot brighter than most people in the United States. Their priorities are different, though. They're looking at operations on the ground. They're looking at weapons systems. They're looking at all the things that you do to actually run a military campaign. The U.S. military [has] traditionally been really crappy at running the peace," Hitchens said.
Hitchens believes the U.S. government could not quickly build up the number of its Arabic interpreters for two reasons. First, she says, it was not focused on the issue, and second, there are not that many Arabic speakers in the United States from which to choose.
And in this small pool, Hitchens says, are many immigrants from the Middle East who feel alienated in a country whose culture is predominantly Judeo-Christian and whose attention has historically not been focused on Arab culture.
Finally, she says, the U.S. military and intelligence communities had been focused on the Soviet Union for a half-century.
"For years, we were fixated on the Soviet Union, and a huge culture grew up of people who spoke Russian and who learned about the Russian culture and who steeped themselves in Russian military history, and other areas of the world were neglected," Hitchens said.
But while Allard calls this lack of preparedness a "sin," Hitchens is more indulgent of the American military and intelligence communities. The Cold War may have ended 14 years ago, she says, but it will take even longer for the CIA, the FBI, and the Pentagon to change their focus so radically.