- The Washington Times - Friday, October 1, 2004

Two senior members of the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday offered an amendment to the National Intelligence Reform Act being debated on the Senate floor that would give the panel greater oversight of the FBI’s beleaguered foreign-language translation unit.

The amendment, offered by Sens. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the committee’s ranking Democrat, and Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, is in response to a report this week by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General that the FBI had failed to translate nearly 500,000 hours of audio intercepts tied to ongoing terrorism and espionage cases since the September 11 attacks.

Despite huge budgetary and manpower increases, Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said more than one-third of the al Qaeda audio intercepts authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and forwarded to the FBI’s language-services translation center at the bureau’s Washington headquarters had not been reviewed within 12 hours as required by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.

Mr. Fine said the FBI’s collection of material requiring translation continued to outpace its translation capabilities, and the bureau could not translate all of the foreign-language counterterrorism and counterintelligence material it collected. He attributed the FBI’s backlog to an insufficient number of linguists, as well as limitations in the bureau’s translation information-technology systems.

Questions about the unit were raised by Mr. Leahy and Mr. Grassley more than two years ago. Their amendment would clarify and expand on the existing requirements that the attorney general report to Congress on the translation unit.

“Three years after thousands of Americans were killed in the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, troubling doubts about the effectiveness of a major investigative tool in our anti-terrorism arsenal persist,” Mr. Leahy said during a floor speech, adding that the inspector general’s report was “unsettling and deserves our immediate attention and action.”

“The report shows that despite concerns expressed for years by those of us here in Congress and by former FBI contractors, among others, and despite an influx of tens of millions of dollars to hire new linguists, the FBI foreign-language translation unit continues to be saddled with problems across the board, including growing backlogs, systemic difficulties, security problems, too few qualified staff, and an astounding lack of organization,” he said.

Mr. Leahy asked what purpose was achieved in taping thousands of hours of conversations of intelligence targets, including members of the al Qaeda network, “if we cannot translate the material promptly, securely, accurately and efficiently.”

In an audit that was partially redacted, Mr. Fine said that since the September 11 attacks, more than 123,000 hours of audio in languages commonly associated with counterterrorism cases — including Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto — had not been reviewed.

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