FBI slow in translating terrorism-related tapes

Shortage of linguists, increase in material delay translations

September 28, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - 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 FBI, and computer problems may have led the bureau to systematically erase some al-Qaida recordings, according to a declassified summary of a Justice Department investigation that was released yesterday.

The report, released in edited form by Glenn A. Fine, the Justice Department's inspector general, found that the FBI still did not have the capacity to translate all the terrorism-related material from wiretaps and other intelligence sources and that the influx of new material had 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. Al-Qaida 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. Later, the 9/11 commission found that these intercepts did not apply to the Sept. 11 attacks.

The inspector general's report on the FBI, 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 FBI's ongoing 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 prioritizing the work and in ensuring that hundreds of newly hired linguists were providing accurate translations. While linguists are supposed to undergo proficiency exams under FBI 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 FBI on the translation issue said the report offered a much bleaker assessment than the bureau itself had acknowledged, and leading senators from both parties denounced what they described as foot-dragging in fixing the problem.

"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 Sen. 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."

The FBI, in its response to the report, said yesterday that 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 FBI, said he agreed that "more remains to be done in our language services program." He added, "We are giving this effort the highest priority."

With some $48 million in additional funding since the Sept. 11 attacks, the number of linguists at the FBI rose from 883 in 2001 to 1,214 as of April 2004, with sharp increases in the number of translators of Arabic, Farsi and other languages considered critical to counterterrorism investigations. But 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 put the blame in part on the FBI'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 translated by bureau linguists.

In field tests conducted by the inspector general at eight FBI offices, three offices "had al-Qaida sessions that potentially were deleted by the system before linguists had reviewed them," the report said.

An FBI official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that officials have had to go back to original al-Qaida recordings on some occasions to restore them after realizing that the copies had been inadvertently deleted because of capacity problems.

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