return to ICG Spaces home    ICG Risk Blog    discussions    newsletters    login    

ICG Risk Blog - [ Lost in Translation (inability to translate what we intercept) ]

Lost in Translation (inability to translate what we intercept)


I've seen few substantial items other than Lost in Translation on the translation morass since October 2003, but I doubt things have improved in a few months. Having been involved with integrating less cleared (lower clearance level) "mumblers" into past data fusion efforts in the past, this must be a security agony. Think of having to give highly sensitive COMINT (communications intel) traffic to a foreign national -- there is almost no effective way to compartmentalize it -- and then second guess their translations as to technical and cultural accuracy. This is an Achilles Heel for us well into the future. I do wonder what the "after-session" or end-of-assignment restrictions are on these foreign translators. I wonder if they have or will have HAR (hazardous Area Restriction) travel limits:

Lost in Translation
The Feds listen in on terrorists every day. Too often they can’t understand a word they hear
By Daniel Klaidman and Michael Isikoff
Updated: 1:45 p.m. ET Oct. 30, 2003

Oct. 27 issue - The clash of civilizations rages in some surprising places, and one of them is the large room in the FBI’s Washington, D.C., Field Office that houses a unit known as CI-19. In one set of cubicles sit the foreign-born Muslims; across a partition is everyone else.

They have the same vital job: to translate supersecret wiretaps of suspected terrorists and spies. But the 150 or so members of CI-19 (for Counterintelligence) segregate themselves by ethnicity and religion. Some of the U.S.-born translators have accused their Middle Eastern-born counterparts of making disparaging or unpatriotic remarks, or of making "mistranslations"failing to translate comments that might reflect poorly on their fellow Muslims, such as references to sexual deviancy. The tensions erupt in arguments and angry finger-pointing from time to time. "It’s a good thing the translators are not allowed to carry guns," says Sibel Edmonds, a Farsi translator who formerly worked in the unit.

To fight the war on terror, the FBI desperately needs translators. Every day, wiretaps and bugs installed under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) record hundreds of hours of conversations conducted in Arabic or other Middle Eastern languages like Farsi. Those conversations must all be translated into Englishand quicklyif investigators are to head off budding Qaeda plots against the United States. Today, more than two years after the 9/11 attacks, the FBI is still woefully short of translators. FBI Director Robert Mueller has declared that he wants a 12-hour rule: all significant electronic intercepts of suspected terrorist conversations must be translated within 12 hours. Asked if the bureau was living up to its own rule, a senior FBI official quietly chuckled. He was being mordant: he and every top gumshoe are well aware that the consequences could be tragic.


The FBI is still overwhelmed. Because of a threefold increase in FISA wiretaps to monitor the terror threat, the bureau has struggled to keep up. Mueller has been adamant about trying to monitor conversationsin real timein the dozen or so truly urgent terrorism investigations. But he has been disappointed again and again. One FBI official described an oft-repeated awkward scene in the director’s office: a top investigator comes to brief Mueller on a high-priority case, the kind that appears in the Threat Matrix shown to President George W. Bush every morning. During the course of the presentation, it becomes obvious that there are significant gaps in the case. The sheepish agent finally admits that hours of wiretaps have yet to be translated. Mueller, a no-nonsense ex-Marine, swallows his exasperation and tersely instructs his subordinates to "do better."

In theory, there are rules for prioritizing which conversations are to be translated first. Can the information be obtained elsewhere? Is the speaker a known Qaeda member? Is there other intelligence suggesting urgency? In practice, says one street agent, "it all depends on how loud you scream on the phone to headquarters."

Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Infrastructure Defense Public  Terrorism Public  


  discuss this article

<<  |  October 2019  |  >>
view our rss feed