WASHINGTON — “Orrin,” the handwritten note reads, “I worry very much about
all that goes untranslated.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., recently scribbled the personal message at the
bottom of a formal two-page letter to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of
the Senate Judiciary Committee. In it, the ranking committee member requests
hearings to investigate deficiencies in the FBI’s foreign language
department, where Middle Eastern linguists translate al-Qaida and other
Backlogs of untranslated Arabic chatter by suspected terrorists are piling
higher at the department, thanks to a post-9-11 increase in wiretaps and a
still-chronic shortage of qualified translators, as WorldNetDaily first reported
At the same time, the bureau’s Middle Eastern languages program — the key
to intercepting the next al-Qaida plot — has been plagued by charges of
inaccurate translations and security breaches brought by several FBI
linguists fluent in both Arabic and Farsi since 9-11. They’ve lodged
complaints with the staffs of both Leahy and Sen. Charles Grassley, a
Republican member of the Judiciary committee and long-time FBI watchdog.
“Surely issues that implicate the very essence of the FBI’s counterterrorism
and counterintelligence missions should take priority in our oversight
responsibilities on the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Leahy wrote Hatch.
“In my view,” he added, “the committee has not fulfilled its oversight role
on this critical issue.”
His letter, a copy of which was obtained by WorldNetDaily (page 1, page 2), is dated March 2.
Tracy Schmaler, a spokeswoman for the ranking member, says chairman Hatch
has not responded to the hearing request.
One FBI whistleblower, who describes the translation problem as a “crisis,”
contends Hatch has a “laissez-faire attitude” regarding the issue, and would
rather not deal with it.
A spokesman for the chairman, Margarita Tapia, did not return repeated phone
calls for comment.
Separately, Leahy also wrote a three-page letter on the same day to Attorney
General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller (page 1, page 2, page 3). In that letter, he
asked Mueller for a full accounting of the bureau’s backlog of untranslated
electronic intercepts of suspected terrorist conversations.
“Please estimate the number of hours of talk by suspected terrorists that
are going untranslated for more than 12 hours, for more than 48 hours, for
more than one week and for more than one month,” Leahy said.
Reportedly, Mueller, responding to recent criticism, has instated a “12-hour
rule,” whereby all terror-related intercepts must be translated within 12
FBI spokesman Ed Cogswell said he was not familiar with Leahy’s data
request, but would look into it. He did not get back by deadline.
Leahy, who authored a provision in the PATRIOT Act to speed up translator
recruiting by the FBI, also asked Mueller to provide data on the number of
Arabic translators the bureau has hired since 9-11. Last October, he noted
Mueller announced the bureau was still short on translators.
Leahy says Mueller in his latest budget request seeks a $13 million boost in
the FBI’s foreign language program. The proposed increase will fund 86 new
positions, including 43 “language specialists.”
Hiring qualified linguists and swiftly clearing backlogs, which could hold
clues to another 9-11-type attack, should be a top priority, he says.
“Nearly two years ago, I began asking questions in Judiciary committee
hearings about the FBI’s translation program. Most of these remain
unanswered,” Leahy complained in his letter to Mueller and Ashcroft.
“As a result,” he went on, “members of our committee are no closer to
determining the scope of the issue, including the pervasiveness and
seriousness of FBI shortcomings in this area, or what the FBI intends to do
to rectify personnel shortages, security issues, translation inaccuracies
and other problems that have plagued the translator program for years.”
Leahy and Grassley first became concerned about the language program in 2002
after a former FBI contract linguist came forward with shocking allegations
about disloyalty and intentional mistranslations by fellow linguists. Other
linguists have also stepped forward with complaints.
Sibel Dinez Edmonds, who speaks Farsi, Turkish and Azerbaijani, claims
terrorist “investigations are being compromised,” and has demanded an
independent probe of the FBI’s language department.
Leahy said in his letter that Edmonds’ charges “appeared to implicate the
integerity of national security information.”
“We were alarmed when FBI officials confirmed a substantial part of these
allegations,” he said, “yet the officials appeared unconcerned about a
potential national security breach, and claimed there were few, if any,
problems in the FBI’s translation program.”
Edmonds, who Grassley calls “very credible,” has also taken her case to the
Justice Department’s inspector general.
“If there were, and are, persons within the language department that either
intentionally prevented translation because of their agendas, or persons who
were, and are, not qualified to properly translate, it is likely that
terrorist communications prior to 9-11 were missed; and it is likely that
current and future terrorist communications will likewise be missed,”
Edmonds wrote Justice’s Inspector General Glenn A. Fine in a Jan. 5 letter.
“I have alleged, and the FBI has confirmed (to Senate investigators), that
there are in fact such persons in the language department.”
However, Fine still has not released the findings of his internal probe,
even though Edmonds first filed her complaint with his office almost two
years ago. Speaking for Fine, Justice official Carol Ochoa said the
investigation is “still ongoing.”
“We are working hard to complete it expeditiously,” she said in a Jan. 6
letter to Edmonds.