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FBI Has Not Translated Thousands Of Hours of Archived Terrorist Tapes

By Eric Lichtblau

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

Three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, more than 120,000 hours of potentially valuable terrorism-related recordings have not yet been translated by linguists at the FBI, and computer problems may have led the bureau to systematically erase some 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. 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, the lead agency for combating domestic terrorism, 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. While linguists are supposed to undergo periodic proficiency exams under FBI policy, that requirement was often ignored last year, the inspector general found in the publicly released summary of its investigation. Most of the report remains classified.

Congressional officials who have been briefed recently by the FBI on the translation issue said the report offered a much bleaker assessment than the bureau itself had acknowledged, and leading senators from both parties denounced what they described as foot-dragging in fixing the problem.

“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.”