Politics & Policy

Lost in Translation

An avoidable national-security problem.

Readers of the New York Times learned this week that “more than 120,000 hours of potentially valuable terrorism-related recordings have not yet been translated by linguists at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

The problem is not new. In fact, the FBI told the Clinton administration it had an Arabic-translator shortage, according to the New York Post:

Urgent complaints that the FBI could not decipher bugged conversations between members of a Brooklyn mosque and Afghan terrorists because it lacked translators were included in the documents former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger removed from the National Archives.

Now why would Sandy Berger, at the time an informal Kerry campaign adviser, be so interested in covering up a translator shortage that continued well into the Bush administration? Because Clinton-administration language policies only made the problem worse.

On August 11, 2000, Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13166. E.O. 13166 required all recipients of federal funds, including a “federally funded zoo or theater,” to be able to provide translations into any language on demand, including rare or obscure languages spoken by only a handful of people.

E.O. 13166 would have enabled professional ethnic activist groups to grow ever richer by filing lawsuits against state, county, and city governments for failing to provide translations into Spanish or any other language. Your local DMV could be sued for failing to do what the FBI itself could not do with regard to interpreting Arabic, Pashto, and Urdu.

Only the Supreme Court’s 2001 ruling in Alexander v. Sandoval put a temporary stop to what would have been a gold-plated gravy train for these anti-assimilation outfits and their trial-lawyer pals.

But the E.O. 13166 language-translation mandate remains the law of the land, forcing a desperate FBI to compete for Arabic translators with Ames, Iowa, hospitals; Nome, Alaska, unemployment offices; and every other federally funded entity anywhere in these United States.

As one might expect when a federal mandate increases demand for a limited supply of talent, the FBI’s translation problems have only gotten worse. The 9/11 Commission Report documents what the FBI is up against: “The total number of undergraduate degrees granted in Arabic in all U.S. colleges and universities in 2002 was six.”

The increased demand has led to a lowering of standards and an opportunity for America’s enemies to derail our anti-terrorist activities from the inside, as a CBS News 60 Minutes report, “Lost in Translation,” detailed:

In its rush to hire more foreign language translators after Sept. 11, the FBI admits it has had difficulty performing background checks to detect translators who may have loyalties to other governments–which could pose a threat to U.S. national security.

Take the case of Jan Dickerson, a Turkish translator…. The FBI has admitted that when Dickerson was hired 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.

The source for this report, Sibel Edmonds, told the 9/11 Commission that Kevin Taskesen, a Turkish translator, had failed all FBI language-proficiency tests and “could not understand or speak even elementary-level English.” Yet Taskesen, according to Edmonds, “was sent to Guantanamo Bay to translate.”

If the FBI is so desperate for interpreters that someone as unqualified as Taskesen can be placed in such a key role, surely a senator like John Kerry, who claims he would be a superior guardian of our national security, would not be seeking to add to the FBI’s translator shortage.

Yet Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, are both co-sponsors of Sen. Tom Daschle’s “Health Care Coverage for Minorities” legislation (S.1833), which would require these scarce translation resources to cool their heels while awaiting a potential speaker of Arabic or Farsi to turn up in a Fargo, North Dakota, emergency room.

Since everyone knows that the FBI needs more translators, anything that keeps the FBI from hiring those translators, like Executive Order 13166 or S.1833, should be dropped like a hot potato.

Were President Bush to repeal E.O. 13166, something he can do with the stroke of his pen, he would force Kerry to choose between continuing to play ethnic politics and defending the president’s action as necessary during a time of war. Chances are good Kerry would try to have it both ways, thus alienating both his base and swing “national security” voters.

Jim Boulet Jr. is executive director of English First.

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