- The Washington Times - Monday, September 27, 2004

The FBI has 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, according to a government report yesterday.

The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General also said that 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 were not reviewed within the 12-hour time limit required by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.

“Our audit highlighted the significant challenges facing the FBI to ensure that translation of key information is performed timely and accurately,” said Inspector General Glenn A. Fine.

Mr. Fine’s office completed and 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 yesterday were “redacted” because they remain classified, including references to specific languages and FBI field offices at issue, and the identification of FBI capabilities and vulnerabilities.

The audit concluded that the FBI’s collection of material requiring translation has continued to outpace its translation capabilities, and the bureau cannot translate all of the foreign-language counterterrorism and counterintelligence material it collects. 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.

The audit also said the FBI tracks backlog only for counterterrorism FISA cases and does so only by case, not by language. In addition, it said, given the imprecision of the FBI’s translation workload reporting process and the systems’ inability to filter unintelligible audio and “white noise” that does not require translation, the FBI’s data cannot reliably be used to determine the exact amount of unreviewed material that needs to be translated.

The FBI said in response that it was in the process of addressing issues raised in the report, such as the development of a national integrated statistical collection and reporting system that is expected to be implemented next year.

Mr. Fine said the inspector general’s investigation showed 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 — have not been reviewed. Additionally, he said, more than 370,000 hours of audio in languages tied to counterintelligence activities have not been reviewed.

The audit said that funding for the FBI’s foreign-language program increased from $21.5 million in fiscal 2001 to nearly $70 million in fiscal 2004, and the number of linguists grew from 883 in 2001 to 1,214, as of April. It also noted that intercepts in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto had increased by 45 percent between 2001 to 2003.

The audit said that while FBI policy requires al Qaeda FISA audio intercepts to be reviewed within 12 hours, only 36 percent of the intercepted al Qaeda sessions were forwarded to the translation center at FBI headquarters within the 12-hour limit.

The IG’s report contained 18 recommendations to help improve the FBI’s foreign-language program, including ensuring that digital collection system storage capabilities were sufficient so that unreviewed audio material for critical cases is not automatically deleted and implementing appropriate controls to ensure the forwarding of audio to other offices is accomplished in a reliable and timely manner.

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