Interpreters have long been the cogs in the wheel of international diplomacy. They make headlines only when they mess up, as when President Jimmy Carter's interpreter spoke of the Polish people's "lusts for the future" instead of their "desires" for the future. And even then, convention demands that interpreters remain in the background, refraining from public comment.
This tradition does not sit well with Indonesian specialist Fred Burks, who is making a noisy exit from government service after 18 years of interpreting for top U.S. officials, including President Bush and former president Bill Clinton. Burks resigned last month in protest against what he sees as excessive government secrecy, and since then has been treating anybody who will listen with insider stories about private meetings he attended.
These included high-level negotiations with Indonesia over U.S. attempts to secure the handover of a radical Muslim cleric, Abu Bakar Bashir, suspected by the Bush administration of connections to the terrorist group al Qaeda. According to Burks, the Indonesians resisted heavy White House and CIA pressure to transfer Bashir to U.S. custody.
Burks interpreted for Bush at an Oval Office meeting with Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri in September 2001, eight days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He says Bush displayed such a detailed grasp of Indonesian issues at the meeting that he came away thinking the president must have been fed information through a hidden earpiece.
White House spokesman Sean McCormack dismissed Burks's allegations of a secret presidential wireless device -- similar allegations surfaced most recently during Bush's election debate with the Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) -- with a laugh and a one-word comment: "Nonsense."
Burks says he is free to talk about his work as a contract interpreter for senior government officials because he was never required to sign a secrecy agreement. That changed last month when the State Department insisted he agree to a new contract that included a pledge never to disclose "any information" that he learned in the course of his government interpreting work to unauthorized outsiders. He refused.
"It was ridiculous," said Burks, who learned Indonesian while teaching in Borneo in 1981 and living with an Indonesian family. "In theory, it meant I couldn't even tell my family where I was traveling if that information had not already been made public."
He says he also has never had a security clearance.
Burks's fluency in Indonesian and Mandarin Chinese made him a valued asset for the State Department. While the government has little difficulty recruiting interpreters for common European languages such as French and Spanish, the demands of the war on terrorism have resulted in a severe shortage of experts in Asian languages. According to Burks, he is one of only three Americans qualified to interpret into Indonesian at the highest level.
Brenda Sprague, director of language services for the State Department, said Burks was one of 1,600 or so interpreters who work with the agency on a contract basis. She said State also has 38 career interpreters.
State Department spokeswoman Julie Reside described the nondisclosure clause in the contract that Burks was asked to sign as "standard boilerplate" dating from October 2000. She said the department terminated its relationship with Burks after he said he could not sign the new version of the contract.
In addition to his complaints about government secrecy, Burks is at odds with the Bush administration over an unauthorized trip to Cuba that he made with his girlfriend in December 1999. The government initially fined him $7,590 for breaching the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba but eventually offered to let him pay only $250. Burks declined the deal, and the case has been referred to an administrative court for adjudication.