washingtonpost.com  > Politics > Federal Page

FBI Backlogged in Translation of Counterterrorism Wiretaps

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2004; Page A25

The FBI has failed to translate hundreds of thousands of hours of wiretap recordings from counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigations since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, despite steep increases in funding for new linguists and other translation services, according to a report released yesterday.

An audit by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine also found that more than a third of al Qaeda-related audio recordings were not translated within 12 hours, as mandated by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III. Many of the recordings were not even received at FBI headquarters within that time frame, the study found.

The findings -- which were completed in classified form in July but not released publicly until yesterday -- show the persistent problems that the FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies have faced in attracting and retaining translators with expertise in Middle Eastern and South Asian languages. Mueller and other U.S. officials have repeatedly said that recruiting qualified linguists is among their top priorities in the fight against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

The report also underscores the extent to which the Justice Department and FBI rely upon special intelligence wiretaps authorized by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees warrants for terrorism and counterintelligence investigations. Such warrants now outpace the number of traditional criminal wiretaps nationwide.

"The FBI cannot translate all the foreign language counterterrorism and counterintelligence material it collects," the report said. "The FBI's collection of material requiring translation has continued to outpace its translation capabilities. In fact, despite the infusion of more than 620 additional linguists since September 11, 2001, the FBI reported that nearly 24 percent of ongoing . . . counterintelligence and counterterrorism intercepts are not being monitored."

Mueller said in a statement that the bureau had implemented many of Fine's recommendations for reform, but he acknowledged that "more remains to be done in our language services program."

"We are giving this effort the highest priority," he said.

Fine's investigation determined that as of April, the FBI had not translated more than 123,000 hours of recordings "in languages primarily related to counterterrorism activities," such as Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto. The study also found that more than 370,000 hours of recordings in languages connected to counterintelligence probes had not been deciphered by that time. The backlog accounts for 30 percent of the total hours of audio recordings in those categories, the report said.

The problems persist, Fine's report found, despite a dramatic increase in funding for translation-related services within the FBI. The FBI now employs more than 1,200 linguists, compared with fewer than 900 three years ago. It spends $70 million annually on language services, compared with $21 million in fiscal 2001.

Fine also reported that the bureau lacks the computer storage capacity to keep up with the amount of recording it is conducting. The limitations mean that, in some cases, surveillance recordings may be deleted before they can be reviewed, the report said. Fine determined that although deleted recordings can be retrieved through archives, FBI translators generally have no way of knowing that material has been lost.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that "the Justice Department's translation mess has become a chronic problem that has obvious implications for our national security."

"What good is taping thousands of hours of conversations of intelligence targets in foreign languages if we cannot translate promptly, securely, accurately and efficiently?" Leahy said. " . . . The administration has a responsibility to explain why it has repeatedly failed to take the necessary steps to fix it."

Intelligence agencies struggled to keep up with the heavy volume of electronic intercepts they collected before the Sept. 11 attacks. In one example, two messages apparently related to the hijackings were intercepted by the National Security Agency on Sept. 10, 2001, but were not translated until two days later. The Arabic-language messages said, "the match is about to begin" and "tomorrow is zero hour," according to intelligence officials.

In its final report on the attacks, the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission said the FBI needed to improve its recruitment and retention of linguists and other counterterrorism specialists.

Yesterday's release by Fine's office included only the executive summary of the translation audit, some of which was redacted for national security reasons. A separate review of translation-related allegations brought by a former FBI contract employee, Sibel Edmonds, is still considered classified, but Fine's office is negotiating with the Justice Department to produce a public copy of that report, officials said.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company