Thursday, July 28, 2005

Translator Shortage

The FBI has just announced the extent of it's translator shortage:
[T]he F.B.I. "has no assurance" that some 8,300 hours of untranslated material does not include information that could be critical to terrorism investigations.[NY Times, Hat Tip: ESWN]
The FBI has counted translation among it's highest priorities because of the precedent provided by 9-11:
[T]he F.B.I. has struggled to develop quicker translation capabilities. That task is considered a top priority for counterterrorism agencies across the federal government, particularly in light of messages from Al Qaeda associates that were intercepted by the National Security Agency on Sept. 10, 2001, but translated only days later.
The messages said, "Tomorrow is zero hour," and, "The match is about to begin."
If the FBI is having such a hard time with Arabic and other top-priority languages used by terrorists and terror suspects, imagine how well the CIA is doing with Chinese. In 2000, Representative Christopher Cox (R-CA) commented:
It is not unfair to say, if you are in the Ministry of State Security seeking to encrypt your conservation, speak Mandarin.
The need for translations often comes in waves. At the time of Cox's quote, a walk-in had just brought the CIA 16,000 pages of Chinese secrets.
The translators now slogging through the walk-in documents for the CIA have mostly been hired on contract, since neither the agency nor the broader intelligence community have enough Chinese translators to translate the documents and perform daily ongoing tasks, such as monitoring Chinese military communications.
The problem, however, is endemic. I have long said that the Chinese government could post plans to invade Taiwan (or California for that matter) in every major Chinese newspaper (in Chinese) two days in advance and unless the Taiwanese told us about it, we wouldn't know until long after the fact. Scary thought, isn't it?