facebook
twitter
search
search

FBI: Lost in translation?

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor   |   March 31, 2004 at 6:21 PM
Sign up for our Security newsletter

WASHINGTON, March 31 (UPI) -- Angry lawmakers are calling for hearings on the FBI's translation unit, which they say has still not addressed problems of mismanagement and lax internal security more than two years after they were revealed by a bureau whistleblower.

In letters to FBI Director Robert Mueller, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the committee's ranking Democrat, says that questions he began raising in the spring of 2002 "remain unanswered."

Sibel Edmonds, the whistleblower whose revelations about the translation unit are already the subject of inquiries by the Senate Judiciary Committee and Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine, has also given evidence to the Sept. 11 commission.

Her three-and-a-half-hour classified briefing suggests that the commission is weighing an inquiry into the 200-strong unit at the FBI's Washington field office.

Neither commission staff nor Edmonds would comment on the content of the briefing, which took place in a special secure "bug-proof" facility used by the commission in Washington. But in previous unclassified briefings for Judiciary Committee staff, Edmonds made a series of shocking allegations about the unit where she worked as a contract linguist for six months immediately following Sept. 11 -- several of which have been acknowledged as true by the FBI.

A spokeswoman for Hatch, Margarita Tapia, told United Press International the chairman "always considers requests for hearings very seriously. We will work with the ranking member to provide an opportunity for these concerns to be voiced. We expect (FBI) Director (Robert) Mueller to testify before the committee within the next few months."

Inspector general spokesman Paul Martin declined to give a date for the completion of the report, saying only that, "we are working on it as hard as we can." Sept. 11 victims' families, who are closely following the case, say they will ask commissioners to raise the issue when FBI Director Robert Mueller gives evidence to the panel in April.

The translation issue goes to the heart of the pre-Sept. 11 failure of the FBI, and the intelligence community in general, to catch the attackers and stop the plot that killed nearly 3,000 people. And critics see the way that the FBI has dealt with the issue since Edmonds went public with her claims in March 2002 as a depressingly accurate indicator of how the administration intends to address the weaknesses identified by the Sept. 11 Commission and other investigations.

Edmonds started work in the translation unit just a few days after Sept. 11. "The way that unit was run was just terrible," she told UPI. "Some of the people they'd hired couldn't even speak English, and a lot of material was being mistranslated -- or not translated at all, just marked 'not relevant' and ignored. I couldn't believe it."

Translation -- in particular the shortage of linguistic expertise in certain critical tongues like Arabic -- has always been an issue for the FBI, a former senior bureau official told UPI on condition of anonymity, and there was always a backlog of untranslated material.

"Translation and other intelligence efforts did not get the support they needed, not just from the FBI executive management, but from Congress as well," the former official said, adding that one problem was the difficulty in running background checks on people born outside the United States. Indeed, Mueller highlighted the issue at his confirmation hearing just a few days before Sept. 11.

But Edmonds alleges that, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, personnel in the unit were urged by the manager to slow down their work. He wanted the backlog to get worse, he told his staff, so that he could make a better case for a bigger budget.

"That is completely absurd," one former agent who worked at the Washington field office told UPI. "At that time, we were frantically trying to assess the threat, to work out the next step. People were working 16-hour days; they were sleeping in the office. To try to delay the unit's work, to say 'slow down' -- well, it is unthinkable, it would have been a criminal offense."

But Edmonds says that the unit was a kingdom unto itself. "Agents couldn't enter our offices unless they were escorted by someone who worked there," she said. "None of them knew what was going on."

But even the mismanagement was less shocking than the internal security problems Edmonds saw. Agents left secure laptop computers lying around while they went to lunch, they took classified material home with them, and -- even more disturbing -- some had undeclared contacts with foreign organizations that were under surveillance.

The result, she says: vital FBI operations -- including counter-terrorist investigations -- were compromised.

"That is absolutely appalling if it is true," one former senior counterintelligence official told United Press International. But he added he was not surprised, given the FBI's failure to catch Robert Hanssen, who sold bureau secrets to the Russians for decades. "One of the things that (came out) about the FBI after the Hanssen case was that they had no real internal security. They had no one who came to work in the morning looking inward, looking for spies inside the organization."

The FBI says it cannot comment directly on Edmonds' claims, some of which are directed at former colleagues, and all of which are still under investigation. But, according to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a longtime critic of the FBI, bureau officials acknowledged the truth of most of Edmonds' allegations in a series of meetings with Senate staff.

"They admitted most of the facts but denied the conclusions," Grassley, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement provided to UPI. Senate staff say the bureau insisted that most of the security lapses were simple "training issues." Because they haven't admitted the scale of the problem, says Grassley, "the FBI has failed to overhaul (the translation) unit, despite its obvious and critical importance in the war on terrorism."

Grassley supports Leahy's call for hearings.

FBI officials say they have been working to address the issue. "We've made a significant effort to reduce the backlog," spokesman Ed Cogswell told UPI.

Last month, Mueller told another Senate panel that the number of linguists the bureau employed had risen from 550 or so prior to Sept. 11 to over 1,200 today. "We've increased our capacity by hiring more people, especially in the languages we really need for counter-terrorism work: Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto," says Cogswell.

Former FBI Director Louis Freeh told UPI last year that the bureau had been trying to find creative ways around the background check problem. "If you have someone from Jordan (applying for a job requiring clearance), we have a relationship with the service in that country, and that can help us. We're developing more and more of those relationships," he said.

The FBI also points to the establishment of an intelligence community resource, the National Virtual Translation Center. Established in February 2003, the center is a clearinghouse that employs contract linguists at local offices based in federal facilities all over the country. Working via secure computer links, the translators can get real-time access to recordings and documents from FBI operations anywhere in the world, the bureau's Paul Bresson told UPI.

"Now, we don't have to move people around the country to do translation work -- we can take the work to them, wherever they are," he said.

In addition, decisions about how translation resources are allocated have been centralized, Bresson said, a move the former FBI official welcomed as essential. "Prioritization became very challenging ... when we wanted to shift resources. You can imagine: Everyone thinks their own case is too important to be denied resources."

Critics on Capitol Hill remain agnostic about the center, but members of the House Intelligence Committee will have the chance to ask questions about it during a closed hearing later this week.

The FBI says that Mueller will lay out all the measures that have been taken to improve the bureau's translation capacity when he testifies next month before the Sept. 11 commission, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

Meanwhile, Sibel Edmonds waits, without much hope, for the outcome of the many and various investigations into the allegations she said got her fired in March 2002. "I sat back and waited for one and a half years," she told UPI. "We can't afford to wait. If there are warnings about the next attack, they will probably have to be translated, and if the job is left to the people who were doing it when I was there ... well, let's just say we can't let that happen."

Related UPI Stories
Latest Headlines
Top Stories
Videos