Politics & Policy

The Peril of Perfidious Translators

A Clintonian problem.

Translation requires a remarkable amount of trust in the translator, unless everyone involved is fluent in both languages. A translator with an agenda can be a dangerous person if no one else notices what he is actually doing.

Just ask U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.). The Mandarin Chinese version of Living History “contains at least ten segments in which sensitive topics have been changed or deleted.”

Obviously, not every translation error springs from impure motives. In fact, the “virgins” some Islamist terrorists believe they will be rewarded with in paradise may actually be a simple mistranslation of a Syriac phrase meaning “white raisins” of “crystal clarity.” (One cannot help but picture the consternation of a now-deceased terrorist being handed a box of raisins upon arriving into the afterlife.)

Lately there has been a parade of perfidious Arabic translators in the news. Up to 10 people at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp for terrorists are now under suspicion “for possible espionage.” It now appears that “American interpreters at the military prison may have intentionally sabotaged interviews with detainees by inaccurately translating interrogators’ questions and prisoners’ answers.”

There have already been two arrests. First was Senior Airman Ahmad I. al Halabi, who worked as an Arabic-language translator at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp for suspected terrorists. Now a colleague, Ahmed Mehalba has been arrested. Guantanamo’s Muslim chaplain, Army Capt. Yousef Yee, has also been detained.

Unfortunately, the problem of the traitorous translator is not new. The FBI has discovered spies in its own translation desks. Last year, 60 Minutes reported on Jan Dickerson, a Turkish translator for the FBI:

The FBI has admitted that when Dickerson was hired last November the bureau didn’t know that she had worked for a Turkish organization being investigated by the FBI’s own counter-intelligence unit.

They also didn’t know she’d had a relationship with a Turkish intelligence officer stationed in Washington who was the target of that investigation. According to [whistleblower Sibel] Edmonds, Dickerson tried to recruit her into that organization, and insisted that Dickerson be the only one to translate the FBI’s wiretaps of that Turkish official. …

Edmonds says that when she reviewed Dickerson’s translations of those tapes, she found that Dickerson had left out information crucial to the FBI’s investigation–information that Edmonds says would have revealed that the Turkish intelligence officer had spies working for him inside the U.S. State Department and at the Pentagon.

These spies sneak in because the U.S. has a huge shortage of Arabic translators. The General Accounting Office documented last year that the U.S. Army’s efforts to recruit Arabic-language interpreters fell short by 50 percent in FY 2001.

This shortage has already hindered America’s war effort in Iraq. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer notes that “[t]he Bush administration now blames the shortage of translators for part of the delay in the search for alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.” There are thousands of documents in Arabic to read and not enough people able to read them.

The man now in charge of our troops in Iraq, Lt. General John Abizaid, is a graduate of West Point who holds a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard and is fluent in Arabic. Americans like Abizaid are rare.

Since 9/11, more Americans are studying Arabic, but there aren’t enough to make a difference.

This leaves the translation field to either Arab Americans, who are predominantly Christian refugees from the Middle East, and Muslims, since learning the Arabic language is required to properly read the Koran.

Outside recruitment agencies do their best to screen out bad guys, but as Lora Owings of Worldwide Language Resources admits, “People lie.”

Arab Christians have been finding the doors of translation employment barely ajar to them because of their supposed inadequate understanding of Islam.

Accordingly, the largest pool of available Arabic translators are Muslims, who vary in their devotion to their faith.

While not all Muslims are opposed to America’s foreign policies, some are. A Zogby poll of Muslim Americans asked them to choose how best to wage the war against terrorism found that 67 percent picked “Changing America’s Middle East policy” while just seven percent picked the second most popular option, “Using U.S. military covert/Special Forces.” More moderate Muslims are also subject to constant pressures from their more militant colleagues.

What if someone opposed to American policies is given a place where he or she might directly affect them?

Consider Ana Belen Montes, a former U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in October 2002, after admitting to spying for Cuba since 1985.

Montes exposed four U.S. agents working in Cuba and sent numerous classified documents to Fidel Castro. But her greatest success, noted the Wall Street Journal on November 1, 2002, may have been as the “key drafter” of a 1998 Defense Department report that Cuba posed no military risk to the United States and was unlikely to have either biological or chemical weapons.

It is reasonable for anyone to ask why it takes the United States years or even decades to identify spies like Montes. The answer is that accused spies in these politically correct times will claim discrimination, a charge likely to destroy any investigator’s government career.

In addition there are many organizations determined to make reasonable security precautions impossible to conduct.

The Washington Post reported on September 18th that the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee actually objected to an effort to identify a bearded individual who took pictures of the structure of Baltimore’s baseball stadium with his back to the field and then left before the game started. “If it’s someone taking a picture and leaving, I just don’t think that should be seen as suspicious,” said Hussein Ibish.

Just wait until the ACLU and the EEOC find out that one of the accused Arabic translators, Ahmad al-Halabi, has been forbidden to speak to anyone in Arabic.

As far as these folks are concerned, no security officer is allowed to notice if al-Halabi spent hours on the telephone chatting in Arabic with Osama bin Laden.

Given the circumstances, the Bush team may well feel there is nothing more they can do. But they can reduce the demand for Arabic translation here at home by repealing Clinton Executive Order 13166.

E.O. 13166 requires all recipients of federal funds to be ready to function in any language anyone speaks at any time.

Under existing E.O. 13166 regulations, should a member of al Qaeda or any other speaker of Arabic present himself at any American government agency, welfare office, police desk, doctor’s office, health clinic, or airport, he has the right to demand oral and written translations into Arabic.

E.O. 13166 requires Horseheads, N.Y., to be as ready and willing to provide Arabic translation as is the United Nations. This means far more demand for a still small supply of Arabic translators.

In time of war, political correctness should bow to reality. The military, the FBI, and the CIA should not have to compete for Arabic translators, as they are currently expected to do, with every recipient of federal funds in America. E.O. 13166 endangers the success of our war against terrorism. President Bush would do well to repeal it.

Jim Boulet Jr. is executive director of English First.


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