F.B.I. Said to Lag on Translations of Terror Tapes
P. Kerim Friedman
kerim.list at oxus.net
Tue Sep 28 14:44:25 UTC 2004
September 28, 2004
F.B.I. Said to Lag on Translations of Terror Tapes
By ERIC LICHTBLAU
ASHINGTON, Sept. 27 - Three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, more than
120,000 hours of potentially valuable terrorism-related recordings have
not yet been translated by linguists at the Federal Bureau of
Investigation, and computer problems may have led the bureau to
systematically erase some Qaeda recordings, according to a declassified
summary of a Justice Department investigation that was released on
The report, released in edited form by Glenn A. Fine, the department's
inspector general, found that the F.B.I. still lacked the capacity to
translate all the terrorism-related material from wiretaps and other
intelligence sources and that the influx of new material has outpaced
the bureau's resources.
Overhauling the government's translation capabilities has been a top
priority for the Bush administration in its campaign against terrorism.
Qaeda messages, saying "Tomorrow is zero hour" and "The match is about
to begin," were intercepted by the National Security Agency on Sept.
10, 2001, but not translated until days later, underscoring the urgency
of the problem.
The inspector general's report on the F.B.I., the lead agency for
combating domestic terrorism, said the bureau faced "significant
management challenges" in providing quick and accurate translations.
The report offered the most comprehensive assessment to date of the
F.B.I.'s problems in deciphering hundreds of thousands of intercepted
phone calls, conversations, e-mail messages, documents and other
material that could include information about terrorist plots and
foreign intelligence matters. It revealed problems not only in
translating material quickly, but also in ranking the work and in
ensuring that hundreds of newly hired linguists were providing accurate
translations. While linguists are supposed to undergo periodic
proficiency exams under F.B.I. policy, that requirement was often
ignored last year, the inspector general found in the publicly released
summary of its investigation. Most of the report remains classified.
Congressional officials who have been briefed recently by the F.B.I. on
the translation issue said the report offered a much bleaker assessment
than the bureau has acknowledged, and leading senators from both
parties denounced what they described as foot-dragging in fixing the
"What good is taping thousands of hours of conversations of
intelligence targets in foreign languages if we cannot translate
promptly, securely, accurately and efficiently?" asked Senator Patrick
J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
"The Justice Department's translation mess has become a chronic problem
that has obvious implications for our national security."
In its response to the report, the F.B.I. said it had taken
"substantial steps to strengthen our language capabilities," but it
acknowledged that a shortage of qualified linguists and problems in the
bureau's computer systems had led to a backlog in translating terrorism
material. Robert S. Mueller III, director of the F.B.I., said he agreed
"that more remains to be done in our language services program, and we
are giving this effort the highest priority."
With $48 million in additional financing since the Sept. 11 attacks,
the number of linguists at the F.B.I. rose to 1,214 as of April 2004
from 883 in 2001, with sharp increases in the number of translators of
Arabic, Farsi and other languages considered critical to
counterterrorism investigations. But Mr. Fine's report made clear that
the expansion had not eliminated the management and efficiency problems
that dogged the bureau even before Sept. 11.
The investigation blamed in part the F.B.I.'s computer systems, long
derided by Congressional critics as antiquated and unwieldy. The
investigation found that limited storage capacities in the system meant
that older audio recordings had sometimes been deleted automatically to
make room for newer material, even if the recordings had not yet been
In field tests conducted by the inspector general at eight F.B.I.
offices, three offices had "Qaeda sessions that potentially were
deleted by the system before linguists had reviewed them," the report
An F.B.I. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that
officials have had to go back to original Qaeda recordings on some
occasions to restore them after realizing that the copies had been
inadvertently deleted because of capacity problems.
But the inspector general's report said that linguists might not have
realized that material was deleted unless a case officer happened to
notice it missing from the final translations. Moreover, the report
found that the F.B.I. had failed to institute necessary controls "to
prevent critical audio material from being automatically deleted."
Audio recordings that relate to Qaeda investigations are supposed to be
reviewed within 12 hours of interception under F.B.I. policy. But the
report found that deadline was missed in 36 percent of nearly 900 cases
that the inspector general reviewed. In 50 Qaeda cases, it took at
least a month for the F.B.I. to translate material.
The F.B.I. "has not prioritized its workload nationwide to ensure a
zero backlog in the F.B.I.'s highest priority cases - counterterrorism
cases and, in particular, Al Qaeda cases," the report found.
Computer problems and the shortage of qualified linguists have worsened
the backlog in translating material, the report found.
In counterterrorism cases, more than 123,000 hours of audio recordings
in languages commonly associated with terrorism have not been
translated since the Sept. 11 attacks, amounting to 20 percent of the
total material, the report found. For all languages, nearly half a
million hours of audio tapes, or 30 percent of the material collected,
was not reviewed, it said. The data reflected material gathered under
foreign intelligence surveillance warrants in operations within the
Several lawmakers who have pressed for improvements in the F.B.I.'s
translation abilities said the report reinforced their concerns that
the bureau was headed in the wrong direction.
"Since terrorists attacked the United States on 9/11, the F.B.I. has
been trying to assure the Congress and the public that its translation
program is on the right track," said Senator Charles E. Grassley,
Republican of Iowa. "Unfortunately, this report shows that the F.B.I.
is still drowning in information about terrorism activities with
hundreds of thousands of hours of audio yet to be translated."
Mr. Grassley also urged the inspector general to release a public
version of an internal report about the case of a former F.B.I.
linguist, Sibel Edmonds, who complained of ineptitude and possible
espionage in the translation program. A still-classified version of the
report found that Ms. Edmonds's complaints played a part in the
F.B.I.'s decision to dismiss her in 2002, officials said.
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