EXCLUSIVE: Lack of translators hurts U.S. war on terror

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“They are likely to be swayed by their family,” the source added. “At least that is the conventional wisdom.”

He said he had personal knowledge of tapped phone calls going untranslated for days because of personnel shortages. There are only a handful of security-cleared Kurdish speakers in the United States, Canada and Britain — countries that trade in intercepted communications.

“Anything that goes on in northern Iraq, where Kurdish is spoken, is really tough for us,” the former officer said. He recalled an Iraqi bomb maker in the Kurdish north whose calls were intercepted but not translated for days, allowing him to stay on the move.

The source added that inhabitants of the Korengal Valley, in the Taliban-infested Kunar province in Afghanistan, speak their own little-known dialect.

“It is almost impossible to do anything in a timely manner there,” he said.

The Senate intelligence committee is now applying its own pressure. Its budget report for fiscal 2010 stated, “persistent critical shortages in some languages contribute to the loss of intelligence information and affect the ability of the intelligence community to process and exploit what it does collect.”

The report devoted only a few paragraphs to the issue and didn’t spell out in detail why the CIA, the NSA and the Defense Intelligence Agency are not fully staffed with foreign-language specialists.

Without a full cadre of native speakers, the intelligence community must rely on trained Americans. But Pashto, Dari and other dialects are difficult to learn and take years to master. Americans cannot duplicate the intricate knowledge of native speakers.

“Once they are trained that well they can make more money elsewhere,” the former intelligence officer said. Indeed, the NSA relies on private contractors to do some of the translating, as does the military.

The FBI makes up one prong of the U.S. intelligence community cited in the Senate panel report. The bureau contends that it has assembled a strong cadre of regional language speakers, in-house and with private contractors.

Its role is critical: It translates thousands of al Qaeda documents seized here and abroad, and interrogates terrorism suspects around the world. The FBI also may have a larger interrogation role now that the Obama White House has taken control of interrogations away from the CIA.

“We have recruited many more language specialists since 9/11 as well as our part in the Virtual Translation Center,” Assistant FBI Director John Miller said. The center is a multiagency facility intended to pull various language skills into one place.

“On the subject of the recently announced joint interrogation teams, one of the strengths of it is that you are working off a multiagency platform, so between all the participating agencies, you should be able to find the right speaker with the right dialect for the mission,” Mr. Miller said in an e-mail.

But Stephen Kohn, a Washington lawyer who has represented two FBI whistleblowers who have suspected failings in the bureau’s anti-terrorism efforts, said the committee’s criticism applies to the bureau, too.

“They just don’t have the speakers, especially in any type of operational capacity,” Mr. Kohn said.

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