Lawyers Criticize Quality of Guantanamo Interpreters

A sketch shows Khalid Sheik Mohammed, center, and Tawfiq bin Attash, alleged Sept. 11 conspirators, at arraignment.
A sketch shows Khalid Sheik Mohammed, center, and Tawfiq bin Attash, alleged Sept. 11 conspirators, at arraignment. (By Janet Hamlin Via Bloomberg News)
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By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Something was being lost in interpretation. Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, a Saudi national accused of war crimes and murder for his alleged role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was speaking in Arabic. Ralph H. Kohlmann, a Marine colonel and military judge at Guantanamo Bay, was listening to a simultaneous interpretation in English.

At a recent pretrial hearing, Hawsawi, according to his military lawyer, wanted to discuss the potential responsibilities of his attorneys and the implications of representing himself before the military commission. Those in the courtroom, however, often heard head-scratching sentences such as, "In the beginning of the timing of the laws, I said there is no difficulties base."

A linguist working with Hawsawi's team later estimated that half of what the defendant said was rendered incorrectly by court interpreters and that Hawsawi didn't understand at least 25 percent of what was said in English.

As five key defendants charged in the Sept. 11 attacks -- including self-described mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed -- move toward a trial by jury, defense lawyers and human rights advocates charge that the fairness of the most significant proceeding at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is routinely undermined by incompetent interpretation.

"Regular omissions, or mistranslations of key words or phrases often led to disjointed, incomprehensible or misleading translations into both English and Arabic," Hawsawi's attorneys wrote in a draft document supporting a motion they filed asking to halt the case until qualified interpreters are hired. The lawyers asked the court to order the government to produce an Arabic transcript of each hearing -- a motion military prosecutors are resisting.

The Pentagon rejected charges that interpreters at Guantanamo Bay are not qualified, but Defense Department officials said they were instituting new controls to address attorneys' concerns. Officials said that only native speakers or native-level speakers are hired and that they are equal to interpreters used in federal court. The interpreters are subject to in-house testing by the Pentagon's contractor, based on State Department standards, as well as testing by an outside firm, officials said.

"We work hard to provide the most qualified translators to do an important mission for our nation," Joseph DellaVedova, a spokesman for the Office of Military Commissions, said in an e-mail. "Nevertheless, because of concerns expressed by counsel -- particularly regarding their ability to speak at normal pacing -- OMC is instituting an additional quality control system which will enable us to pre-screen potential interpreters to assess their skill level."

Defense lawyers and court observers said the Guantanamo interpreters do not approach the standards for interpretation in federal courts or in forums such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. "There is no way someone who doesn't understand what's going on in court can get a fair trial," said Army Maj. Jon Jackson, military counsel to Hawsawi. "This is being done on the cheap."

In fact, the Guantanamo interpreters are well paid, with some earning close to $150,000 annually plus benefits if they have the right security clearance to work at the prison, according to one job offer seen by The Washington Post.

The identities of Guantanamo interpreters are classified, and defense lawyers have been unable to secure their résumés to examine their professional backgrounds. Jackson said defense lawyers have learned informally that one interpreter was a former schoolteacher with no prior experience in simultaneous court translation. Another interpreter assigned to the defense team of alleged Sept. 11 conspirator Tawfiq bin Attash announced after arriving at Guantanamo that he was unqualified, said Edward B. MacMahon, a civilian attorney for Attash.

A judge removed an interpreter in a separate proceeding at Guantanamo when the words "Osama bin Laden's driver" were repeatedly interpreted as "Osama bin Laden's lawyer." In the case, in which the defense was arguing to a jury that the defendant, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, was a bit player in al-Qaeda, the mistake was deemed significant enough for the judge to act.

After one bewildering exchange in the Sept. 11 case, Ammar al-Baluchi, a defendant who speaks excellent English, lamented the quality of the interpretation. He noted, for instance, that when the court was hearing the words "very, very private" in English, Hawsawi was actually saying "top secret" in Arabic.

Anthony S. Barkow, executive director of the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at New York University, described the quality of interpretation at a pretrial hearing as "ridiculous."

"I've never experienced a situation where it was so obvious that no one understood what was being said," said Barkow, a former federal prosecutor, who is observing the Sept. 11 proceedings at Guantanamo for Human Rights First, a New York-based advocacy group.

The Administrative Office of the United States Courts asserts on its Web site that the "professional knowledge, skills, and abilities required of a federal court interpreter are highly complex."

For languages other than Spanish, Navajo and Haitian-Creole, for which there are certification programs, federal courts prefer "professionally qualified interpreters," a standing that requires demonstrated experience as an interpreter or employment history with a U.S. agency, the United Nations or a similar organization that requires taking an interpreter examination.

Nerma Jelacic, a spokeswoman for the Hague tribunal, said interpreters at that court must have a university degree, preferably from a recognized interpretation school, as well as two to 10 years of internationally recognized professional interpreting experience.

"The required competencies include split-second accuracy, clear and timely delivery, ability to perform under continuous stress and to assimilate an exceedingly broad range of subjects," Jelacic said in an e-mail. "Interpreters are expected not only to convey the message but to communicate it as well; therefore, they have to pay attention to the register and make appropriate use of intonation and rhythm to sound natural and convincing in the target language."

In proceedings for the Sept. 11 defendants, the judge's remedy has been to ask everyone to speak more slowly, something that Barkow said gave the hearings a "halting, robotic" quality.

MacMahon said that at a jury trial, defense lawyers will be seriously handicapped if they can't speak naturally and must use a crawling monotone.

"Advocacy is not done at that pace," he said. "And it obviously will become a much more critical issue when people start putting an argument on for a jury."

Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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