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Tuesday, September 28, 2004

FBI: Three Years On, Same Problems

Those who have followed the terror-related events in the recent years likely remember various publications relating to how inefficient various US security services were prior to 9/11. Various flaws were exposed in the way those services, including the FBI, handled terror-related investigations. One crucially important component,- translation of foreign-language materials potentially relevant to FBI criminal and terrorism-related investigations,- was found to be severely inadequate.

Well, three years later things are hardly any better.
The FBI does not have enough translators to handle a growing backlog of documents and intercepts in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto, a federal audit said on Monday, confirming criticism by U.S. elected officials and experts.

An unclassified summary of a July 2004 report by the U.S. Justice Department's inspector general said while the FBI has increased the number of translators of languages used in the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan, it still cannot keep up with the backlog of material flowing into the system.

So, is there an explosive growth of the amount of materials that need to be translated? There is some, but it appears to be rather moderate.

According to the report, the FBI's electronic surveillance intercepts in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto -- languages used in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan -- has increased by 45 percent from 2001 to 2003.

Translation growth rates in those languages are expected to increase by at least 15 percent a year.

Former FBI director Louis Freeh said earlier this year that the bureau's counterterrorism effort before the Sept. 11 attacks was plagued by an inability to afford enough translators in languages like Arabic and Farsi.

Wow, those translators must charge an arm and a leg... Sort of like them Enron executives. Is that why we can afford to fight a war in Iraq which has already cost us in excess of US$100B, yet can not afford enough FBI translators. How many do we need anyhow?

According to the audit cited above,

"Despite the infusion of more than 620 additional linguists since Sept. 11, 2001, the FBI reported that nearly 24 percent of ongoing FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) counterintelligence and counterterrorism intercepts are not being monitored," the report said, referring to court-authorized eavesdropping by the U.S. government.
So, let us try to calculate what it would take to really fix the problem. Let us say that every new linguist hired for the program would receive a annual salary of US$100,000 (likely, an exaggerated estimate). Let us assume that training and support for that linguist would cost nine times as much, so let us assume that each new hire is going to cost US taxpayers US$1M. Thus, to hire and sustain an additional 10,000 translators (as opposed to the 620 that actually were added) would cost us US$10B a year. That is not a small amount, but relative to our defense budget (about US$400B a year), as well as the cost of the war in Iraq, that is small change. Let us also not forget that the problem lies not only in an insufficient number of translators but, according to Sibel Edmonds, also in corruption, protectionism and incompetence in their ranks.

In her letter to Thomas Kean, Chairman Of The 9/11 Commission, Edmonds, a former FBI translator fired for blowing the whistle on her employer, alleges deliberate obfuscation and artificial deceleration of the translation process by the FBI,- things that can be considered acts of sabotage or obstruction of justice.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11 we, the translators at the FBI’s largest and most important translation unit, were told to slow down, even stop, translation of critical information related to terrorist activities so that the FBI could present the United States Congress with a record of ‘extensive backlog of untranslated documents’, and justify its request for budget and staff increases. While FBI agents from various field offices were desperately seeking leads and suspects, and completely depending on FBI HQ and its language units to provide them with needed translated information, hundreds of translators were being told by their administrative supervisors not to translate and to let the work pile up ( please refer to the CBS-60 Minutes transcript dated October 2002, and provided to your investigators in January-February 2004). This issue has been confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee ( Please refer to Senator Grassley and Senator Leahy’s letters during the summer of 2002, provided to your investigators in January-February 2004). This confirmed report has been reported to be substantiated by the Department of Justice Inspector General Report (Please refer to DOJ-IG report Re: Sibel Edmonds and FBI Translation, provided to you prior to the completion of your report).
So if what Sibel Edmonds alleges is indeed the case, there is likely some room for improvement within the translation unit.

The fact that three years after the tragedy of 9/11, in spite of all the official talk about our resolve to fight the "War on Terror", we still do not have an adequate capacity to translate,- and thus, to understand,- what our potential enemies in this war are talking about is an outrage. And I mean "outrage",- not "bureaucratic inefficiency", not "an issue". This is something we as a society must not allow to continue; this is a severe problem that needs to be addressed in the shortest possible order, and those whose job it was to prevent this situation from occurring have utterly failed us. Those officials must be relieved of their duties, and the ability to translate documents relevant to terror investigations must be viewed as nothing less than a top national security priority.

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