FBI lagging on translation efforts: report

WASHINGTON Mon Oct 26, 2009 7:52pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has lost 3 percent of its linguists and failed to sift through millions of documents as the agency's workload of terrorism cases grows, according to a report issued on Monday.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies were widely and repeatedly criticized for failing to have enough linguists, especially for languages spoken in the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In addition to losing 40 of the 1,338 linguists the FBI had at its peak in March 2005, the agency now takes 19 months on average to hire a contract linguist, up from 16 months, the Justice Department's inspector general found.

The FBI had 883 translators in 2001 and despite stepped-up efforts since then to recruit more they still face lengthy security clearance reviews which can take up to 14 months and another five months for proficiency testing.

The report also found that the FBI fell short in its hiring goals last year in all but two of the 14 languages for which it had hiring goals, but the review did not identify which ones because that information was classified.

"Failing to hire an adequate number of linguists in a timely manner adversely affects the FBI's ability to manage the growing translation workload and reduce the current backlog of unreviewed material," Justice Department inspector general Glenn Fine said in the report.

While the FBI reviewed all of the 4.8 million foreign language documents and intercepts it collected for terrorism and criminal cases from fiscal year 2006 to 2008, 31 percent of some 46 million electronic files were not examined, most of them collected in fiscal 2008, the report said.

Further, some 25 percent of the 4.8 million audio hours collected from wiretaps and other surveillance between fiscal 2003 and 2008 had not been reviewed, mostly counterintelligence information but also some English material, the report said.

To wade through that backlog, it would take 100 linguists and other personnel more than seven years if they worked the typical 40 hours a week, according to the report.

Included in the material that had not been reviewed were some 737 hours of audio and 6,801 electronic files -- some of it in English -- that were deemed part of the FBI's top tier of counterterrorism and counterintelligence cases in fiscal 2008.

Responding to the report, FBI Deputy Director John Pistole said the agency's translation capabilities, including hiring and retaining linguists, are better than ever before.

"I am confident that with respect to counterterrorism translation matters, we have made progress to address our collected material in a timely way," Pistole said in a statement.

"With regard to counterintelligence collections, we are doing a careful job of prioritizing and monitoring the most important material," Pistole added.

The FBI also disputed some of the numbers, saying that some material was duplicates. The agency also said it would be a waste of resources to translate and review every single electronic file it collects and it has a system for identifying the information in files it needs.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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