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Needed: Arabic translators
During Operations Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, coupled with the ongoing global war on terror, the United States has collected a vast array of foreign papers, documents, electronic media and other materials. These documents, stored in more than 35,000 boxes in a warehouse in the Persian Gulf, could constitute a treasure trove of intelligence related to Saddam Hussein and actions taken by his regime prior to the war in Iraq.
Despite the possibility that these documents may contain critical information, a vast and untold amount dating back to Operation Desert Storm in 1991 still remains untranslated. At the government’s current rate of translation, there is a high probability that many of these CDs, books, ledgers and other items will go unreviewed for decades or more. This is unacceptable. We need to know what is in these documents now, not sometime in the future or possibly never. Why, you may ask, is it taking so long to translate these documents? Given the insight they could provide into prewar Iraq, shouldn’t everyone want to know what the documents may say?
Much of the blame for the slow translation can be attributed to the fact that the United States has few trained Arabic translators in its intelligence community. Of the ones we do have, their focus and priority, as it should be, is on translating current information to assess potential threats and to provide support for our troops in the field.
The other significant problem, and one that is entirely of our government’s own making, is that current intelligence community requirements allow only people with top security clearances to handle the documents.
Given the limited availability of translators, and legitimate questions as to whether the U.S. government could ever employ enough translators to review the documents, the most prudent course is to eliminate the classification requirements surrounding the documents. They could then be published, so academics, journalists, bloggers and other interested individuals could have access and help translate them.
An undoubtedly enterprising spirit resides in the American people, and others around the world, that we can harness to assist in translating the documents. Regardless of one’s political perspective, there are many on all sides who would like to know more about the happenings and thinking in prewar Iraq.
I, along with Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, recently proposed that the federal government take a bold and unprecedented step to immediately turn this archive into a valuable source of information on Iraq. Specifically, we called on Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte to declassify the millions of pages of documents and make them available to the public.
In making the request, we asked Mr. Negroponte to develop a process for the release of the documents, including posting them on the Internet for general public access. Clearly, a means of ensuring document integrity would need to be developed, but the ultimate goal would be to use the entrepreneurial, linguistic and analytic abilities available in the public to sift through the materials and help pinpoint the subsets of documents that require closer intelligence community scrutiny.
In addition to this public effort, Mr. Negroponte should consider creating an international academic institute or commission dedicated to studying these documents. Such a commission, which should include Iraqi academics, could be located near U.S. document analytic facilities to give its members access to the original documents. This proposal represents a radical departure from traditional approaches used in the intelligence community, but clearly tradition is not getting the job done.
At the end of the day, the director of National Intelligence must ask, “If you have a warehouse full of potential intelligence papers and there is no one around to translate them, can they still be called ‘intelligence’?” The answer is no. They are just wasted trees.
Peter Hoekstra is chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and represents Michigan’s Second Congressional District.
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