At a Loss for Words


Among the unanswered questions of 9-11 is the part played by the FBI in handling the various tips and information pouring through its translation section at the Washington, D.C., field office. It is in this division that certified language specialists with top secret security clearances handle the most sensitive information, from wiretaps to face-to-face interview translations between an investigating agent and a suspect. The translators often have inordinate power. Because of their expertise (or rather, the limited number of languages spoken by their bosses), translators often make the decisions on which cases to fully translate and which not to bother with. Errors can creep in: Translators may misunderstand a dialect and thus lose the meaning or context of information. On occasion, some translators’ grasp of English is so poor that they cannot convey nuances of the speakers.

This division is already under fire from the Justice Department’s inspector general and whistle-blowers, most notably Sibel Edmonds, who was fired from her job as a Farsi translator when she protested the way the work was being handled. Since Edmonds began speaking out, others have come forward.

A November 8 letter to the Justice Department from Senate Judiciary chair Charles Grassley and ranking minority member Patrick Leahy told of one such case: “A current member of the staff of Senator Grassley has continued to have discussions over the past year with a current contract linguist for the FBI. The allegations made by this current employee are very troubling. Specifically, this employee articulated that translators are often deficient in their abilities to translate into English. The employee noted that some translators who are presently employed by the FBI or who are employed by contractors may in fact fail the English test, but still be provided a passing grade surreptitiously because of personal contacts among the translator staff. This employee also noted that supervisors charged with ensuring that materials are translated accurately are often deficient in their own translating abilities.”

Edmonds, whose previous letters to the two senators were marked “classified” by John Ashcroft’s Justice Department, purportedly in the interests of national security, is readying a federal court appeal to the gag order. She complained to her superiors that translators were unable to handle the languages in which they had been certified. For example, in one case, a man did not have proficiency in basic English, but was hired under pressure from family members who also had worked for the FBI. This man, according to Edmonds, not only was “placed in sole charge of translating for some of the most important/sensitive intelligence investigations, he was also sent to Guantánamo Bay to translate information collected from the detainees.”

Meanwhile, other cases are turning up. One of them involves efforts by a longtime FBI counterintelligence agent to alert his superiors to special treatment accorded translators. John M. Cole, an FBI counterintelligence program officer with 18 years of experience, wrote Director Robert Mueller, in a letter dated March 17, 2003, “I have prepared several risk assessments concerning applicants for language specialists positions. In the majority of these risk assessments I found numerous areas where the backgrounds of these individuals had not been thoroughly investigated. In one case, I discovered that the applicant’s father was a former military attaché who had been assigned to a foreign embassy in Washington, D.C. Despite my findings, these individuals were hired, given unescorted access and Top Secret security clearances.” The applicant’s father was a military attaché at the Pakistani embassy. According to Cole, it is well-known in Washington that all the Pakistani military attachés are in fact Pakistani intelligence officers.

Additional reporting: Laurie Anne Agnese and David Botti