- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 7, 2004

The Senate yesterday approved a bipartisan amendment to increase oversight of the FBI’s foreign-language translation unit, which was criticized last week for failing to translate nearly 500,000 hours of audio intercepts tied to terrorism and espionage cases since the September 11 attacks.

The amendment by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, clarifies and expands existing requirements that the attorney general report to Congress on the translation unit.

Mr. Leahy, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Mr. Grassley, a senior member of the panel, offered the amendment in response to the report by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General that found “a backlog of thousands of hours of conversations of terrorist targets, security problems, and systemic difficulties” despite huge budgetary and manpower increases.

“What is the use of taping thousands of hours of conversations of intelligence targets in foreign languages if we cannot translate the material promptly, securely, accurately and efficiently?” Mr. Leahy asked in a letter this week to President Bush.

“Despite concerns expressed for years by some of us 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 growing backlogs, systemic difficulties, security problems, too few qualified staff, and an astounding lack of organization,” he said.

The report also said more than one-third of the al Qaeda audio intercepts authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and sent to the FBI’s language-services translation center were not reviewed within the 12-hour time limit required by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.

Inspector General Glenn A. Fine released to the FBI a full audit of its foreign-language program in July, although the bureau classified the report as “secret.” Portions of an executive summary released were redacted because they remain classified, including references to specific languages and FBI field offices, and the identification of FBI capabilities and vulnerabilities.

The audit said the FBI’s translation needs had outpaced its capabilities, and the bureau could not translate all of the foreign-language counterterrorism and counterintelligence material it collected. The audit attributed the FBI’s backlog to an insufficient number of linguists, as well as limitations in the bureau’s translation-information-technology systems.

Mr. Fine said his investigators found that more than 123,000 hours of audio in languages associated with counterterrorism cases — including Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto — had not been reviewed. Additionally, he said, they found that more than 370,000 hours of audio in languages tied to counterintelligence activities had not been reviewed.

The audit said funding for the FBI’s foreign-language program increased from $21.5 million in fiscal 2001 to nearly $70 million in fiscal 2004.

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