The scarcity of Arabic speakers prior to September 11 led to the hiring of risky translators to assist the interrogation of detained al Qaeda suspects, say sources familiar with the military’s recruitment of interpreters.
The widening probe into espionage at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center raises questions in some quarters about whether the Pentagon was so pressed for Arabic speakers that it relaxed security standards.
The Pentagon’s “mission is time-critical and for that reason … they stretch, they push to get people through the clearance process,” says Kevin Hendzel, spokesman for the American Translators Association, an Alexandria-based nonprofit that acts as a liaison between the government and interpreters.
“The risk of that translator getting through has to be weighed against the lack of information that would occur without them.”
Peter T. Brookes, a senior fellow for national security affairs at the Heritage Foundation and a former U.S. Navy Russian linguist, says Pentagon officials were faced with drawing “a fine line between operational risk and operational employment to hire these translators.”
Beyond the Defense Department, the interpreter shortage within the American intelligence agencies was well documented in December 2002 when a joint report filed by the Senate Select and House Permanent Select committees on intelligence found that before September 11 the intelligence community had “a readiness level of only 30 percent in the most critical terrorism-related languages.”
Mr. Brookes says “the fact that we’re at war is a critical issue … If they could screen these people as much as possible, it might take six months. We didn’t have six months.”
The Pentagon doesn’t want to talk about it. Lt. Cmdr. Barbara A. Burfeind, a Pentagon spokeswoman, says that “due to ongoing investigations regarding detainee operations at Guantanamo, it is not appropriate to comment at this time.”
Another defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says security clearances vary among military branches. For example, the official says, “a person assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency would have top secret clearance [but] they might work with a translator who doesn’t.”
The Guantanamo interpreters arrested or under suspicion for possible espionage may have been involved in sabotaging interviews with detainees by inaccurately translating questions and answers.
Senior Pentagon and Bush administration officials have said valuable intelligence has been pulled from the interrogations. About 660 yet-to-be-charged enemy combatants are held at Guantanamo, the majority of whom were rounded up during the campaign to topple Afghanistan’s Taliban government and rid that country of al Qaeda.
Capt. Tom Crosson, a spokesman for the Defense Department’s Southern Command that oversees Guantanamo, says “translators and military interrogators are required to possess and maintain a secret clearance.”
“In order to be granted a security clearance, personnel must provide … citizenship status, family history, academic and employment records, credit and character references, and disclose recent foreign travel and contacts with foreign nationals.”
The latest arrest in the Guantanamo probe was made Sept. 29 when authorities in Boston apprehended Ahmed Fathy Mehalba, 31, an Egyptian-born U.S. citizen who worked as an interpreter at Guantanamo. He is said to have had in his possession a list of names of suspected terrorists mentioned during interrogation sessions.
Arrested in July was Air Force Senior Airman Ahmad I. al-Halabi, 24, who also worked as an interpreter at Guantanamo. The Pentagon has identified 32 charges against him, accusing him of collecting more than 180 messages from detainees with plans to pass them on to an unidentified enemy in Syria.
Charges are grave against Mr. al-Halabi — one count could carry the death penalty. Charges filed against a third man, an Islamic chaplain held in the spy probe, are less so.
Army Capt. James J. Yee, 35, who was stationed at Guantanamo for the detainees, nearly all of whom are Muslims, is charged with disobeying a general order for improperly handling classified information, but not espionage.
The Pentagon has not said what it believes were the goals of the accused, but the Bush administration fears classified information could get into the hands of terrorists, endangering the lives of Guantanamo guards and jeopardizing national security.
The spy probe has led several congressmen to ask for a thorough review of security at Guantanamo and at other sensitive military bases. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, has urged Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to evaluate the Pentagon’s background check processes.
“The presumption is that everyone at Guantanamo … went through some kind of background check,” Mr. Schumer said on Sept. 24. “But it is baffling that a chaplain who spent time in Syria, a country on the terrorist watch-list, and was trained by a group with ties to terrorism, would be allowed to serve as a cleric to a bunch of Taliban and al Qaeda.”
A representative of Springfield-based contractor McNeil Technologies, a company that provides the Pentagon with Arabic-language interpreters, did not return phone calls seeking comment about security screening.
Wil Williams, spokesman for San Diego-based contractor Titan Corp., which provided the Army with Mr. Mehalba, says the company conducts “very strict screening procedures … that employment is predicated on them successfully passing a background and security check, which is executed by the government.”
While some of the best linguists in the world work for the U.S. military, Mr. Hendzel says that, as a result of the Cold War, emphasis during the last 50 years has not been on Arabic specialists.
“You couldn’t throw a stone in the senior officer corps without hitting a Russian linguist,” he said.