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FBI chokes on backlog
of untranslated Arabic
Posted By Paul Sperry On 08/11/2003 @ 1:00 am In Front Page | Comments Disabled
WASHINGTON – A shortage of Arabic translators is not
only hurting intelligence-gathering efforts in Iraq,
where troops are hunting Saddam Hussein and armed
resistors, but also at home, where FBI agents are
trying to ferret out al-Qaida terrorist cells before
Osama bin Laden can activate them for another attack
Al-Qaida has trained up to 120,000 terrorists around
the world, and some of them are inside the U.S.,
according to the recently declassified 9-11 report.
The bureau is having a hard time recruiting fluent
American-born translators, because the Arabic language
is rarely studied in American colleges, FBI officials
say. So it’s having to hire translators born in the
Middle East, who require longer background checks.
“It’s very problematic,” said FBI spokesman Ed
Cogswell, although he says the bureau has made recent
strides in recruiting.
The shortage has caused a backlog of untranslated
Arabic materials collected from electronic
surveillances of suspected Islamic terrorists
conducted in the U.S., and from interrogations of
suspected terrorists conducted abroad, mostly at
prisoner camps in Afghanistan and Cuba. The backlog
also includes reams of documents in Arabic and other
tongues recovered in Afghanistan and other countries.
According to the General Accounting Office, the lack
of home-grown qualified linguists has resulted in
thousands of hours of tape-recordings and pages of
documents that have not been translated or studied –
though Cogswell says the backlog recently has been
It’s also created loyalty issues.
Former FBI counterterrorism agents warn that the
shortage may be leading to inaccuracies in wiretap
information obtained through federal courts under the
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.
Donald Lavey, who worked in counterterrorism for 20
years at the FBI, said wiretap translations by
Mideast-born agents should have a “second opinion,”
because their backgrounds may “prejudice” their
interpretation and analysis.
“We are at war, and we need more than one translator
for each subject under electronic surveillance,” he
said. “We are relying too heavily on single Arab
translators for significant information, and worse
yet, investigative guidance.”
He says translators will often leave out large
sections of conversation in surveillance logs, because
they deem it irrelevant to the investigation.
“It’s noted as ‘personal’ or ‘family’ information with
a comment by the translator that there is no
substantive investigative information. It is viewed as
immaterial to the case,” Lavey said.
“But this is often inaccurate,” he added. “Very
easily, and too often, something like, ‘I am picking
up my brother at the station,’ is overlooked and never
made note of, but it may be very significant.”
Cogswell responded that case supervisors “try to vet
[logs] through two people, if they can.”
Lavey recalls a problem with a former Arab translator
in the FBI’s Detroit office who tried to back out of
secretly recording a fellow Muslim suspected of
terrorism by claiming the subject had threatened his
“I know of one case where a translator claimed to have
heard the subject speaking about him and making
threats against him,” Lavey said. “Three other
translators listened and did not hear any of that
He also cites the more recent case of Gamal
Abdel-Hafiz, an immigrant Muslim, who twice refused on
religious grounds to tape-record Muslim terrorist
suspects, hindering investigations of a bin Laden
family-financed bank in New Jersey and Florida
professor Sami Al-Arian, recently indicted for his
ties to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group.
A fellow FBI agent, Robert Wright, said Abdel-Hafiz
finally explained to him that “a Muslim does not
record another Muslim,” after first claiming he feared
for his life. Other agents said he contacted Arab
subjects under investigation without disclosing the
contacts to the agents running the cases.
Despite his divided loyalties, the FBI subsequently
promoted Abdel-Hafiz by assigning him to the U.S.
Embassy in Saudi Arabia, a critical post for
intelligence-gathering. Three-fourths of the Sept. 11
hijackers were Saudis. After Wright and another agent
blew the whistle in the media, he was put on
Then there’s the case of Jan Dickerson, a Turkish
translator hired by the FBI last November.
In screening her for a clearance, the FBI missed her
ties to a Turkish organization under investigation by
the FBI’s own counter-intelligence unit, according to
a CBS News report. The bureau even let her translate the
tapes of conversations with a Turkish intelligence
officer stationed in Washington who was the target of
A co-worker who reviewed Dickerson’s translations told
CBS News that she left out information crucial to the
investigation, such as discussion of methods to obtain
U.S. military and intelligence secrets. She had marked
it as “not important to be translated.”
Dickerson recently left the FBI and now lives
Lavey argues for stricter background checks on
translators from the Middle East.
“Care needs to be taken at this point in time as to
their religious background and political views,” he
Cogswell confirmed that most of the Arabic translators
the bureau hires are from the Middle East.
He told WorldNetDaily that they nonetheless aren’t
scrubbed any more than other agents.
“They go through the same background check as everyone
else – full field background investigations,”
Cogswell said, though he says their checks take “a
little longer” because investigators have to travel to
their home countries to ask questions.
Lavey and other agents worry that the religious bonds
of Muslim agents may trump their oath to protect and
In a moment of candor, Ihsan Bagby, a black convert to
Islam who has taught at American universities,
revealed what many skeptics say is the true sentiment
of devout Muslims in America.
“Ultimately we can never be full citizens of this
country,” he said, “because there is no way we can be
fully committed to the institutions and ideologies of
Muslim group leaders here in Washington are on record
saying they hope the U.S. Constitution will one day be
replaced by Koranic law.
Yet the FBI has assigned some of its Muslim agents to
educate other agents about Islam.
At the FBI’s New York field office, just blocks from
Ground Zero, a Muslim agent from Pakistan has been
lecturing agents about Islamic customs as part of a href="/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=33829">bureau-wide
Muslim sensitivity-training program ordered by FBI
Director Robert Mueller.
Lavey says that at some FBI field offices, wiretap
conversations of Arab terrorist suspects recorded as
far back as the ’80s have only “very recently” been
translated into English. He notes that key discussions
by plotters of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing
were caught on tape months before the attack, but
weren’t translated from Arabic to English until well
after the bombing.
That any backlog still exists two years after the
Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is outrageous, he says.
“The bureau can no longer tolerate that situation in a
war,” Lavey said.
Cogswell, while not excusing the backlog, explains
that the FBI does not have a large pool from which to
recruit translators to clear the backlog. He fairly
notes that the Arabic language is a difficult and
demanding one to learn, and few Americans are fluent
But Lavey says the FBI was advised years ago to send
more agents to learn Arabic at the bureau’s language
school. It was also told to lengthen the course.
“It was pointed out to headquarters that agents
leaving language school after one intensive year of
Arabic were ill-prepared to use the language
effectively , and that, at a minimum, another half
year was needed to learn a dialect conversationally,”
he said. “This information was ignored.”
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