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FBI lags in translating al-Qaida recordings

The FBI has failed to translate hundreds of thousands of hours of wiretap recordings from counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigations since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, despite steep increases in funding for new linguists and other translation services, according to a report released Monday.

An audit by Justice Department inspector general Glenn A. Fine also found that more than a third of al-Qaida-related audio recordings were not translated within 12 hours, as mandated by FBI director Robert Mueller. Many of the recordings were not even received at FBI headquarters within that time, the study found.

The findings _ which were completed in classified form in July but not released publicly until Monday _ show the persistent problems the FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies have faced in attracting and retaining translators with expertise in Middle Eastern and South Asian languages. Mueller and other U.S. officials have repeatedly said that recruiting qualified linguists is among their top priorities in the fight against al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.

The report also underscores the extent to which the Justice Department and FBI rely upon special intelligence wiretaps authorized by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees warrants for terrorism and counterintelligence investigations. Such warrants now outpace the number of traditional criminal wiretaps nationwide.

"The FBI cannot translate all the foreign language counterterrorism and counterintelligence material it collects," the report said. "The FBI's collection of material requiring translation has continued to outpace its translation capabilities. In fact, despite the infusion of more than 620 additional linguists since Sept. 11, 2001, the FBI reported that nearly 24 percent of ongoing . . . counterintelligence and counterterrorism intercepts are not being monitored."

Mueller said in a statement that the bureau had implemented many of Fine's recommendations for reform, but he acknowledged "more remains to be done in our language services program."

"We are giving this effort the highest priority," he said.

Fine's investigation determined that as of April, the FBI had not translated more than 123,000 hours of recordings "in languages primarily related to counterterrorism activities," such as Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto. The study also found that more than 370,000 hours of recordings in languages connected to counterintelligence probes had not been deciphered by that time. The backlog accounts for 30 percent of the total hours of audio recordings in those categories, the report said.

The problems persist, Fine's report found, despite a dramatic increase in funding for translation-related services within the FBI. The FBI now employs more than 1,200 linguists, compared with fewer than 900 three years ago. It spends $70-million annually on language services, compared with $21-million in fiscal 2001.

Fine also reported that the bureau does not have enough computer storage capacity to keep up with the amount of recording it is conducting. The limitations mean that, in some cases, surveillance recordings may be deleted before they can be reviewed, the report said. Fine determined that although deleted recordings can be retrieved through archives, FBI translators generally have no way of knowing material has been lost.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that "the Justice Department's translation mess has become a chronic problem that has obvious implications for our national security. . . . The administration has a responsibility to explain why it has repeatedly failed to take the necessary steps to fix it."

In its final report on the attacks, the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission said the FBI needed to improve recruitment and retention of linguists and other counterterrorism specialists.

Monday's release by Fine's office included only the executive summary of the translation audit, some of which was redacted for national security reasons.