15 October 2003

Need a Translator?

After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were both interested in hiring more Arabic speaking translators to help find any clues that may hint toward another attack. This is a great idea, the only problem is that these agencies may be hiring the wrong people.

We have been watching the debacle unfolding in Guantanamo Bay where the United States is holding Afghani prisoners, and using Arab translators to gain information about al-Qaeda. Up until now we have seen three different arrests of Arab translators working for the United States in Guantanamo.

Army Captain James Yee, an Islamic chaplain based in Guantanamo, is charged with disobeying a direct order for improperly handling classified information, but not espionage. Air Force Senior Airman Ahmad al-Halabi, a translator in Guantanamo, has been charged with collecting more than 180 messages from prisoners with plans of delivering them to an enemy in Syria. Ahmed Mehalba, an Egyptian born US citizen, another translator, had improperly in his possession a list of suspected terrorists mentioned during interrogation sessions.

How is this happening? Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, made a good point when asked about these cases. “The presumption is that everyone at Guantanamo...went through some sort of background check. But it is baffling that a chaplain [Army Capt. Yee] who spent time in Syria, a country on the terrorist watch-list, and was trained by a group with ties to terrorism, would be allowed to serve as a cleric to a bunch of Taliban and al-Qaeda.” The question remains, does the United States military do a proper job when looking into the backgrounds of these translators? The answer is obviously no. [The Washington Times 10/13/03]

Another question that can and must be asked is: is the United States government looking into other avenues of recruiting Arabic translators? The answer to this question as well is no. The FBI’s New York office in October 2001 asked a Jewish social services organization to send them applications of Jews who were fluent in Arabic. Approximately 95 applications were sent. Some were asked back for a second and third interview, but none were hired. Many of these Jews who applied for the translating jobs had immigrated from Middle East countries, such as Israel, Syria, Egypt, and Sudan, and had background in translation, working for the Israeli media as well as the Israeli military.

The question remains. Why were none of these applicants hired for the job? One FBI source stated that the FBI was worried that the applicants were “too close to Israel” and may not be objective when translating the Arabic recordings and writings of terrorists. A question can be asked, is this a real reason for not hiring a Jew who could properly do the job. Perhaps an Army Chaplain who was trained by a terrorist group in Syria could do a better job.

Another angle to this Guantanamo case is the issue of possibly offending the Arab community in the U.S. The head of the FBI New York office invited a Muslim cleric to speak to agents about the peaceful side of Islam. FBI director Robert Mueller has done the same since after the attacks of 9/11. Are Jews not being hired in order not to offend Arab citizens? It would seem that the best translators should be hired regardless of their backgrounds as long as they were not a security risk.

The United States must not relax its standards when looking for translators. By just trying to fill the ranks without regard to serious background checks, we are only setting ourselves up for disaster. [World Net Daily 10/9/03]

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