Intelligence: October 8, 2003


The current spy scandal among Arab translators at Guantanamo was waiting to happen. Currently, the Department of Defense only has about a third of the Arab speaking translators it needs, and it has been frantically searching for other sources. Civilian translation firms are a good source, but these translators are usually not willing to work in Guantanamo or a combat zone. Moreover, many of the captured al Qaeda suspects speak a wide variety of Arab dialects, and many do not even speak "Standard Arabic" as a second language. It takes a highly experienced translator to deal with the dialects, and most of the civilian translators are more comfortable with written Arabic. Document translation is a major part of a civilian translators job. The people most adept at the dialects tend not to be American citizens, and are thus unable to become full time military translators (which requires a Top Secret security clearance, which only American citizens can get.) The Department of Defense has a work around for that. It can designate a non-citizen soldier with valuable language skills as someone with a "skill identifier" (for foreign languages). This allows the soldier to translate on the side, and get an extra hundred dollars a month for that. 

The Department of Defense began building a force of Arab translators in the 1970s, about the same time the Rapid Reaction Force was created for emergencies in the Persian Gulf. But the Cold War was still going on, and obtaining Russian and Chinese speaking translators was given priority. Moreover, military translators don't get much respect in peacetime, and the turnover is high. It takes several years to train a new translator, and most of them opted to leave the military as soon as they could, and apply their new language skills in the civilian world. Few senior officers in the intelligence branch (which the translators belonged to) were willing to go to the mat for their unhappy translators. That has been changing in the last two years, and an old proposal to give translators more pay and rank is being considered. The extra pay would be in the form of high re-enlistment bonuses. The extra rank would in the form of allowing skilled translators to advance to Warrant Officer rank. These are ranks for technical officers who do not have to command troops. The pay for these ranks is equal to that for 2nd Lieutenants through Lieutenant Colonel. Army helicopter pilots have happily been Warrant Officers for decades. A translator who is a Warrant gets a lot more respect than one who is a sergeant, and gets to hang out with the officers more. This gives the officers more opportunity to pick up useful cultural background tips. 

The United States has plenty of loyal naturalized citizens who speak Arabic, and other foreign languages needed for the war on terror. But the major bottleneck to using them is the inability of the Department of Defense background checkers to keep up with the increased work load. Several hundred translators have passed through Guantanamo in the past two years, and three are currently under arrest (including on Arab speaking chaplain), and it is rumored that at least another half dozen are under investigation. Keep in mind that any translator thinking of being an al Qaeda spy would have to be very careful. All interrogation sessions are taped, and many of those tapes are now being reviewed to see what the arrested, or suspected, translators actually said during interrogations. In addition, Guantanamo is swarming with intelligence and counterintelligence troops. This is not the kind of environment a spy would feel safe, or comfortable, in. 

The civilian translation firms have their own screening procedures, to make it easier for their non-citizen to get secret clearances, and their citizen translators to get top secret clearances. But the Department of Defense still has to double check all this work. Which brings us back to the key bottleneck; management. The old saying, "there are no bad troops, only bad officers" applies here. The years of inattention to the translator problem could not be fixed in a few months, or few years. It's easy to overlook the enormous amount of progress made in the translator area, but it's the remaining shortcomings that are getting Americans and their allies killed because information could not be obtained from captives in a timely manner. Many of the al Qaeda suspects were easy to interrogate, if you had someone who could translate. This was particularly the case with the less educated al Qaeda members, who also tended to be the ones who spoke obscure dialects. In the war on terror, information isn't just power, it's a matter of life and death. And you can't get the information unless you speak the language of the guys you capture. 




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