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Monday, October 27, 2003


Concerned that an untranslated letter identifying hijackers (left) might have uncovered the September 11 plot, Mueller and Ashcroft have put pressure on FBI translators


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



Eric Mueller comments:

NEWSWEEK has this story in its latest issue. It highlights the FBI's ongoing translation problems, specifically with Arabic and Farsi (Persian).
   As it turns out, the FBI creates its own problems by setting standards of "loyalty" that only a small minority of applicants can meet.
   Well, this is the price that the US government pays when its leaders decide to target virtually a whole civilization, and one of the world's leading religions, as "terrorist."
    Zionist zealot Daniel Pipes proclaims in a recent book: "All Muslims, unfortunately, are suspect." (Daniel Pipes, Militant Islam Reaches America, New York: W.W. Norton, 2003, p. 140). Obviously, with such an attitude one would be hard pressed to find competent translators who would not be "suspect."

WHAT caught my eye was not the story itself, but the relatively minor matter of the picture on the opening page of the story and the caption:
   "Concerned that an untranslated letter identifying hijackers (above left) might have uncovered the September 11 plot, Mueller and Ashcroft have put pressure on FBI translators."
   The letter shown is actually the famed "hijacker letter," a translation of which I did and which is on this website.
   Newsweek made it look a little different by "cropping" a couple inches off the right side of the text. Compare the picture on the Newsweek page with the original FBI photo (bottom of this page). That letter, as we know, doesn't mention any of the September 11, 2001 hijackers.

After reading through the Newsweek story, I am not sure what that caption is supposed to be referring to. Perhaps it is a reference to a tape of a telephone conversation that allegedly wasn't translated until after the fateful day and which reportedly cryptically referred to September 11 as "zero hour." But if so, that tape didn't mention the hijackers either, so far as we know.
   This matter of how Newsweek choses its graphic images and captions is certainly a side issue when compared to the increasingly costly occupations of Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and parts of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the Philippines, etc.
   On the other hand, it is an example of the cavalier way in which the media treat stories of considerable importance where detail can be of literally life-and-death significance.

Arabist Eric Mueller is this website's expert on Middle Eastern affairs. He was a featured speaker at this year's Real History weekend at Cincinnati, Labor Day 2003

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 English -- and quickly -- if 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. Since 9/11, goaded by the dire warnings of Attorney General John Ashcroft, Congress has poured billions of dollars into the war on terror to beef up manpower, including hiring foreign-language translators. (CALLING ALL LINGUISTS ... TO SERVE YOUR COUNTRY, reads the latest help-wanted ad posted on the FBI's Web site.)

The bureau has made some headway: before 9/11, the FBI had only 40 Arabic and 25 Farsi speakers to listen to national-security intercepts. Today, officials claim, there are 200 Arabic and 75 Farsi speakers on the job (about two thirds are contract employees).

Still, that's not nearly enough: every week, say informed sources, hundreds of hours of tapes from wiretaps and bugs pile up in secure lockers, waiting, sometimes for months on end, to be deciphered. The bureau's slow progress is not for lack of money. Rather, the FBI's understandable but obsessive concern with security, its sometimes cumbersome bureaucracy and, critics say, the remnants of its nativist culture make it a difficult place for Muslims and foreign-born linguists to get jobs and work.

A shortage of Arabic speakers has plagued the entire intelligence community. Though U.S. intelligence was using all the best technology -- spy satellites, high-tech listening posts and other devices -- to listen in on the conversations of possible terrorists, far too often it had no idea what they were saying.

A congressional inquiry after 9/11 found enormous backlogs. Millions of hours of talk by suspected terrorists -- including 35 percent of all Arabic-language national-security wiretaps by the FBI -- had gone untranslated and untranscribed. Some of the overseas intercepts contained chillingly precise warnings.

On Sept. 10, 2001, the National Security Agency picked up suggestive comments by Qaeda operatives, including "Tomorrow is zero hour." The tape of the conversation was not translated until after 9/11.

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 conversations -- in real time -- in 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."

Agents who live in fear of missing the smoking gun that might prevent a catastrophic terror attack are at a loss to explain the bureau's inability to fix the problem. "We keep getting these signals that they need a full-court press and no stone unturned," says one agent. "But the jewels might be on a diskette in a secure locker in Washington. It keeps some of us awake at night."

G-men tell horror stories of blown opportunities, like the one about a Qaeda suspect whose phone was tapped right up to the moment he left the United States. Only after he had surfaced in Yemen did the translators in CI-19 get around to listening to a CD-ROM of his conversations sent to a field office. The suspect had been talking about leaving the country for some time. (FBI officials declined to comment on the matter, except to say that the facts are more complicated than the story suggests, and to note that without evidence of a crime the suspect could not have been detained anyway.)

The grumbles of street agents are not just the usual grousing about the "suits" back at Washington headquarters. In the weeks before the Iraq war, Newsweek has learned, agents in a field office on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States were closely watching a radical imam with disturbing ties to Qaeda elements in northern Iraq. The FBI feared that the imam might try to launch a terror attack in the United States in retaliation for a U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Agents put the imam under round-the-clock surveillance. But, lacking a translator who could listen to his conversations in real time, the agents loaded FedEx boxes with CD-ROMs and sent them to Washington to be translated. The recordings languished there for weeks and even months before transcripts were made.

Desperate for faster action, the FBI field office hired a translator -- but had to settle for one who had trouble understanding the imam's particular dialect.

Arabist Eric Mueller is this website's expert on Middle Eastern affairs. He was a featured speaker at the Real History weekend at Cincinnati, August 29-September 3, 2003.

David Irving: Radical's Diary, October 1, 2001
Article by Robert Fisk on the letter, in The Independent
Translation of letter

 FBI website: letters of hijackers The above item is reproduced without editing other than typographical

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