Do U.S. prisons create radical Islamists? Do they allow them to communicate with terrorists outside? The fears are real, and they are prompting a congressional outcry against the federal Bureau of Prisons. At least two senators are worried that the bureau’s tiny corps of Arabic-speakers cannot adequately monitor and gather intelligence on the communications of terrorists, radicals and would-be converts among the federal inmate population.
As The Washington Times reported Monday, Sens. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, and Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, were concerned to hear that the bureau has hired only one full-time Arabic translator of its own even though the federal inmate population topped 170,000 in 2003. “There is no question that the number of Arabic translators should be beefed up as quickly as possible,” Mr. Schumer said. One-hundred-nineteen inmates are known to have “specific ties” to international Islamist terrorist organizations, according to a recent Bureau of Prisons report.
In a phone conversation with the Editorial Board of The Times yesterday, a spokeswoman said the translator began work on June 12. All correspondence from known terrorists is monitored, she insisted. Even if this were the case — and it would be incredible if one translator were sufficient, presuming help from other federal agencies — it’s clear the bureau isn’t being ambitious enough. The bureau needs to ask for, and Congress needs to deliver, money to hire additional Arabic speakers.
Speaking to The Times, Philip W. Glover, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees’ Council of Prison Locals, proposes that the bureau build incentives into salaries to attract and retain Arabic speakers and speakers of other languages relevant to national security. Something simpler could suffice: Messrs. Grassley or Schumer could insert a few million dollars into an appropriations bill to hire a few dozen Arabic speakers.
The problem of radical Islamism is hardly a new one in federal prisons. In 2003, the bureau came under fire for inadvertently hiring chaplains who follow Wahhabism, the radical Islamist doctrine to which Osama bin Laden subscribes. The Department of Justice’s inspector general concluded that “the BOP typically does not examine the doctrinal beliefs of applicants for religious service positions to determine whether those beliefs are inconsistent with BOP security policies.” It recommended screening for religious beliefs.
Terrorists in prison no doubt want to keep striking the United States, and will make inroads into the unknown but large number of potential converts our prisons hold. The bureau should hire more skilled people to watch them. If Congress were to appropriate a few million dollars for that purpose, the funds would be a drop in the bucket of federal appropriations. But the benefits would be substantial.