WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The FBI does not have enough translators to handle a growing backlog of documents and intercepts in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto, a federal audit said on Monday, confirming criticism by U.S. elected officials and experts.
An unclassified summary of a July 2004 report by the U.S. Justice Department’s inspector general said while the FBI has increased the number of translators of languages used in the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan, it still cannot keep up with the backlog of material flowing into the system.
The report was the first audit of the FBI’s translating capabilities since the Sept. 11 attacks highlighted a gaping hole in the FBI’s ability to translate and interpret foreign intercepts and documents.
“Despite the infusion of more than 620 additional linguists since Sept. 11, 2001, the FBI reported that nearly 24 percent of ongoing FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) counterintelligence and counterterrorism intercepts are not being monitored,” the report said, referring to court-authorized eavesdropping by the U.S. government.
According to the report, the FBI’s electronic surveillance intercepts in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto — languages used in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan — has increased by 45 percent from 2001 to 2003.
Translation growth rates in those languages are expected to increase by at least 15 percent a year.
Former FBI director Louis Freeh said earlier this year that the bureau’s counterterrorism effort before the Sept. 11 attacks was plagued by an inability to afford enough translators in languages like Arabic and Farsi.
In another problem cited in the audit, Inspector General Glenn Fine said the FBI’s digital collection systems have limited storage capacity, causing surveillance to be deleted automatically before being reviewed.
The report said controls have not been properly set up to prevent critical audio material from being automatically deleted before being translated.
“The results of our tests showed that three of eight offices tested had al Qaeda sessions that potentially were deleted by the system before linguists had reviewed them,” the report said.
Since Sept. 11, more than 123,000 hours of audio in languages associated with counterterrorism cases have not been reviewed.
The inspector general recommended that the FBI improve system storage capabilities and implement controls to ensure that one office can forward untranslated material to another office in a secure and timely fashion.
“The FBI appears to be taking steps to address these issues,” Fine said.