Tuesday, October 14, 2003

The Defense Department acknowledged yesterday it was lax in security checks for Arabic translators and Muslim military chaplains, and announced a new policy to screen the organizations that recommend chaplains.

Charles Abell, a deputy undersecretary for personnel and readiness for the department, said the Pentagon will seek out new Muslim organizations to endorse chaplains. The department now relies on two groups, both of which have been accused of holding radical views and supporting terrorists.

“As a result of the last several months of activities, we are looking around to see if there are organizations that might provide us Muslim chaplains other than the two that currently provide it,” he said.

Mr. Abell also said the department cut corners in its rush to hire Arabic translators after September 11.

“I think it’s fair to say that folks who were brought on with sort of interim-level checks, and then the more detailed checks to follow — I think the results of that are as we are seeing here. We have found a couple who were not as trustworthy as we had hoped initially,” he told a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee.

One chaplain and two translators — one Air Force member and one contract employee — have been arrested in an espionage probe at Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba, where the United States is holding suspected al Qaeda and Taliban members.

The Pentagon has ordered a review of how it recruits military chaplains, particularly Muslim clerics endorsed by U.S. Muslim groups with ties to radical Islam.

The probe first came to light after The Washington Times reported the Sept. 10 arrest of Capt. James Yee, a Muslim chaplain in the Army who was counseling Guantanamo prisoners. The Pentagon announced last week that it had charged Capt. Yee with disobeying a general order. The charges did not include espionage.

Meanwhile, the FBI is increasing its efforts to hire foreign-language specialists, including those who speak Arabic.

In an announcement posted yesterday on the bureau’s Web site (www.fbi.gov), FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said more linguists are needed so agents “can respond to every investigative challenge, and meet all emerging threats.”

Since September 11, the FBI has turned the main focus of its 11,000-member work force to preventing terrorism. The shift has reduced the bureau’s role in traditional areas, such as drug and bank robbery investigations.

It also has increased the need for people who speak foreign languages.

“The need for translators takes on a new importance and meaning today than it did prior to 9/11,” said Paul Bresson, a spokesman at FBI headquarters. “Obviously, we’re not where we want to be, but we’ve made a lot of progress.”

Mr. Bresson said the FBI has done “an extensive amount of advertising” to attract more applicants for interpreter jobs.

The FBI would not give the specific number of interpreters in its ranks. Officials said, however, that the number of contract linguists has doubled since the bureau’s first appeal after September 11, but more are needed.

Mr. Bresson said it was a coincidence that the FBI’s call for linguists yesterday came just two days after The Washington Times reported that the scarcity of Arabic specialists led the Pentagon to hire risky translators to help interrogate detained al Qaeda suspects.

The Times report, which cited sources familiar with military’s interpreter-recruiting process, said that the widening Guantanamo Bay espionage probe raised questions about whether the Pentagon had cut corners on security checks.

“We don’t cut corners at the FBI,” Mr. Bresson said yesterday. “If you look at the number of applications that we receive versus the ones that we actually hire, there’s a very small percentage of those applicants who get hired.”

The small number is the result of a “very thorough and intensive background investigation,” he said, adding that the screening process takes several months.

As for the military espionage probe and the chaplains’ corps, Mr. Abell said, the Defense Department will try to change its procedures.

Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican and chairman of the subcommittee on terrorism, technology and homeland security, said the government needs to be vigilant since terrorists have shown they will use every option open to them.

“To defeat the terrorists, we must understand their goals, their resources and their methods just as well as they understand our system of freedom and how to exploit that for their terrible purposes. In other words, we’ve got to continue to connect the dots,” he said.

The two organizations that endorse Muslim chaplains to the U.S. military — the Islamic Society of North America and the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council — have been accused of supporting terrorist organizations.

The military relies on endorsements from religious bodies as the first requirement for chaplaincy. Religious organizations apply to the military to be certified endorsers.

The military looks to the Internal Revenue Service for guidance on whether the religious body is a legitimate tax-exempt organization, and then determines whether the group has a congregation.

Senators said that relying on the IRS, which does not check for national security concerns, and asking religious groups to come forward make the system appear flawed.

“It would sort of make sense that those who had the most passion about this, or who might have another agenda, would come forward where others might not,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.

Mr. Abell said the military for now will continue to use recommendations from the two Muslim groups, but not exclusively.

“Should these organizations be determined to have violated their principles or to somehow be indicted, then the chaplains who were endorsed by those folks would have to find another endorsing agency,” Mr. Abell said.

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