FBI translation troubles appear in Danish terrorism case

October 27, 2009

It was just yesterday that the Justice Department’s Inspector General Glenn Fine issued a scathing report about how the Federal Bureau of Investigation was behind in its efforts to translate foreign language documents and audio recordings in terrorism and criminal investigations.

DENMARKAnd now a day later, it became public that an ongoing investigation apparently has been impacted by those troubles — a plot by two men to attack a newspaper in Denmark over its publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed including one in which he is wearing a turban with a bomb in it.

U.S. authorities arrested the two Chicago area men earlier this month and unsealed the complaints against them on Tuesday that detailed how they communicated over email and by telephone to develop the plot.

In those documents, however, an FBI agent acknowledged that the translations from Urdu to English had not yet been finalized (and some of them dated back to late 2008).

“While translators have attempted to transcribe the foreign language conversations accurately, to the extent that quotations from these communications are included, these are preliminary, not final translations,” the affidavits said.

The Justice Department inspector general report said that the FBI had lost 3 percent of its translators since 2005, falling to 1,298, and it was taking an average of 19 months to hire new ones. Additionally, millions of foreign language electronic files have gone unread and scores of hours of recorded conversations had not been heard, including some involving top priority terrorism cases.

While the authorities stressed that an attack was not imminent in the Danish case, it provided a glimpse into the real-time challenges the FBI is facing when suspects speak a foreign language.

Click here for more Reuters political coverage.

– Reuters/Lars Helsinghof (Muslims prayed at the Town Hall Square in Copenhagen after a Danish newspaper apologized for publishing cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed.)


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It is imperative that at least you get enough people who understand the language of those you are after. If translations can backdate to 2008, it shows the total lack of manpower just on FBI administration side. I can’t believe what is happening on their operations side where they need a lot of spies and men on the group to tap the latest information. Prevention is much better than Cure and a good ground network is a must for Prevention.

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We are many translators living in the US that would be happy to translate for the US government, but the problem is you have to be a US citizen. It is not enough to be a Resident Alien.
I have lived in the US for 15 years, worked as a translator for 20 years and I would be happy to translate for the government, but I can’t, because I am not a US citizen. My native country is fighting side-by-side with the Americans and I care about the US as much as my own country.

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