When FBI agents raided Theodore J. Kaczynski's remote Montana cabin in April 1996, they found thousands of handwritten pages that eventually unmasked the reclusive, Harvard-trained mathematician as the Unabomber. But there was a problem: Hundreds of the documents were written in Spanish or in a meticulous numerical code that even when broken translated to Spanish instead of English.
In time, the cryptic journals formed the cornerstone of the government's case against Kaczynski. But at the Montana cabin that spring, where agents also had found an assembled bomb, investigators feared the pages contained plans for targeting victims beyond the three people already killed and 23 injured. They needed to quickly learn what the journals said.
That job fell to a team of 20 FBI translators, who spread out at cafeteria tables inside the bureau's Washington headquarters to unravel Kaczynski's writings. Their behind-the-scenes work had to be highly accurate and was so top secret that none of the federal authorities who worked on the Unabomber case have previously publicly disclosed that much of what Kaczynski wrote was not in English.
"They worked day and night for months to translate these documents," said Special Agent Terry D. Turchie, who headed the San Francisco-based Unabomber Task Force. "You can imagine how we felt when we could actually see admissions and confessions of the Unabomber crimes."
In one of the nation's most high-profile law enforcement agencies, this unseen work is increasingly in demand as federal agents investigate crimes that are ever-more global, such as the bomb attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the U.S. embassies in Africa and, most recently, the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen.
Some 400 people work for the FBI's Language Services Section - double what the agency employed 10 years ago - and the bureau also contracts with more than 350 independent linguists and translators. In this year's budget request to Congress, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh asked for an additional $5 million to cover translation work for what he called "short-term, mission-critical criminal and national security investigations."
"All the world has become smaller," said David E. Alba, the FBI assistant director who oversees the language division. "With the modes of transportation being what they are, we have all kinds of people coming in, and all kinds of languages."
A generation ago, FBI investigators turned to translators for help in predictable ways and with more conventional languages. Agents using wire-taps to crack some of the country's largest organized crime rings would employ translators when the recorded conversations veered, for example, from English to Italian. Along the Mexican border, agents made frequent use of Spanish-speaking translators.
Leo Vadala of Bowie, Md., grew up in an Italian-American family and earned a degree in Spanish studies before he came to the FBI as a language specialist 16 years ago. He monitored wire taps in mob investigations out of Chicago, served as an interpreter for polygraph examiners and during interrogations with defendants, and helped agents pore over foreign-language documents.
The nature of the work has changed little in the 20 years since the FBI created a language services division. Arabic translators helping with the investigation of the 1993 plot to bomb New York landmarks, after the attack on the World trade Center, discovered that the radical followers of Egyptian Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman were using the word "Hadduta" - which literally means a child's bedtime story - as a code for bombs. Alba said investigators knew something was up when the suspects talked about "buying oil and fertilizer for the Haduttas."
In the bureau's Baltimore field office, agents enlisted language specialists in 1998 as they investigated the rapes of five students from St. Mary's College of Maryland during a trip to Guatemala, where all of the police and court records were in Spanish.
But the amount of work has sharply increased in recent years, as have requests for translators who know many of the world's more arcane languages - tongues such as Twi (Ghana), Igbo and Yoruba (both from south central Niger-Congo) or Farsi (Iran) - and who are available to travel to investigation sites at a moment's notice.
"What's making this a lot more interesting is there's an increasing demand for languages we haven't even heard of," Vadala said.
"Knowing what [the languages] are and what country they're from is one hurdle," said Margaret R. Gulotta, section chief for language services. "But finding someone who knows how to speak it is another thing."
The FBI's language specialists are not agents, but they must pass strict background checks and exhaustive fluency exams.