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FBI has huge backlog of terrorist recordings

Three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, more than 120,000 hours of potentially valuable terrorism-related recordings have not been translated by linguists at the FBI, and computer problems may have led the bureau to systematically erase some al-Qaida recordings, according to a declassified summary of a Justice Department investigation that was released Monday.

The report, released in edited form by Glenn A. Fine, the Justice Department's inspector general, found that the FBI still did not have the capacity to translate all the terrorism-related material from wiretaps and other intelligence sources and that the influx of new material had outpaced the bureau's resources.

Overhauling the government's translation capabilities has been a top priority for the Bush administration in its campaign against terrorism. Al-Qaida messages, saying "Tomorrow is zero hour" and "The match is about to begin," were intercepted by the National Security Agency on Sept. 10, 2001, but not translated until days later, underscoring the urgency of the problem.

The inspector general's report on the FBI said the bureau faced "significant management challenges" in providing quick and accurate translations.

The report offered the most comprehensive assessment to date of the FBI's ongoing problems in deciphering hundreds of thousands of intercepted phone calls, conversations, e-mail messages, documents and other material that could include information about terrorist plots and foreign intelligence matters.

It revealed problems not only in translating material quickly, but also in prioritizing the work and in ensuring that hundreds of newly hired linguists were providing accurate translations.

Congressional officials said the report offered a much bleaker assessment than the FBI itself had acknowledged.

"What good is taping thousands of hours of conversations of intelligence targets in foreign languages if we cannot translate promptly, securely, accurately and efficiently?" asked Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. "The Justice Department's translation mess has become a chronic problem that has obvious implications for our national security."

The FBI said Monday it had taken "substantial steps to strengthen our language capabilities," but it said a shortage of qualified linguists and problems in the bureau's computers had led to a backlog in translating terrorism material. Director Robert Mueller said, "We are giving this effort the highest priority."

With some $48-million in additional funding since the Sept. 11 attacks, the number of linguists at the FBI rose from 883 in 2001 to 1,214 as of April 2004, with sharp increases in the number of translators of Arabic, Farsi and other languages considered critical to counterterrorism investigations. But Fine's report made clear that the expansion had not eliminated the management and efficiency problems that dogged the bureau even before Sept. 11.

The investigation put the blame in part on the FBI's computer systems, long derided by congressional critics as antiquated and unwieldy. The investigation found that limited storage capacities in the system meant that older audio recordings had sometimes been deleted automatically to make room for newer material, even if the recordings had not yet been translated.

In field tests conducted at eight FBI offices, three offices "had al-Qaida sessions that potentially were deleted by the system before linguists had reviewed them," the report said.

Audio recordings that relate to al-Qaida investigations are supposed to be reviewed within 12 hours of interception. But the report found that the deadline was missed in 36 percent of nearly 900 cases that the inspector general reviewed. In 50 al-Qaida cases, it took at least a month for the FBI to translate material.

In counterterrorism cases, more than 123,000 hours of audio recordings in languages commonly associated with terrorism have not been translated since the Sept. 11 attacks, 20 percent of the total material, the report found.