Intelligence: May 28, 2002

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Not much reported, for good reason, is the enormous amount of intelligence collecting resources that have been sent to Afghanistan (and surrounding areas.) A prime source of information is telephone conversations. The problem is that there is a shortage of translators that can handle Farsi (Iranian), Punjabi, Pushtun and other related languages in the area. These are all Indo-European languages (on the Indo end, obviously.) Some 2,500 years ago, people speaking Farsi and, say, Greek, could actually understand each other (about as well as Italians and Spaniards today can find enough common words, if spoken slowly, to communicate after a fashion). But today, most of the languages in South Asia have drifted apart. Many of the same words have different meanings, and are pronounced differently. The main language of India, Hindi, is the descendent of the original language all Indo-European languages split off from, and there are many Hindi speakers in the United States who have been recruited to help translate the many interesting phone conversations being picked up. The main languages of Pakistan, Sindi and Urdu, are closely related to Hindi. Pushtu and Tadjik, the main languages of Afghanistan, are more distantly related to Hindi. Farsi, another distant cousin of Hindi, is very close to Dari, a language spoken (often as a second language) by half the people in Afghanistan. Immigrants from Iran and Afghanistan are another source of translators. The government found it easier to deal with translation companies, which normally handle translations for commercial firms. But the translation companies know how to bring new bi-lingual people on line as productive translators. The translations companies can also handle translations of printed material, as local newspapers and magazines (some published by radical Islamic organizations) are good sources of information. The United States also has well developed technology for screening millions of telephone conversations for key words and phrases (indicating connection with terrorist activity), so that those conversations can be completely translated. All of this is a nerve wracking undertaking, as missing one or two vital conversations could mean a terrorist operation went undetected. So when you hear about the intelligence agencies, "hearing a lot of activity" about something, it's usually the result of thousands of translators and analysts catching a pattern of conversations indicating something is up. Then again, they may just be hearing the same rumor or speculation being passed from person to person. That also has to be taken into account and makes the work even that more stressful. 

 


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