Intelligence: Lost In Translators


July 14, 2021: Mariam Taha Thompson, a U.S. Army Arabic linguist contractor, was sentenced to 23 years in prison for leaking identification information about 18 individuals who were key in making it possible to locate Iranian Quds leader Qassem Soleimani for the January 2020 UAV missile attack that killed him and several senior Iraqi associates. Thompson was arrested and charged with espionage two months after the Soleimani attack. She was detected accessing eight intel documents between December 30, 2019, and February 10, 2020. These documents contained names, personal data and photos of foreign sources of information. The 61-year-old linguist did not have a legitimate reason to look at those documents and apparently did not officially have access to those databases either. The investigation continued after her arrest to determine how she got access. Thompson was stationed at Erbil, in Kurdish Iraq at the time. The FBI searched her living quarters on an American base and found a document she had hidden containing personal information on three of the names she had viewed. She had passed this information on to a boyfriend who worked for the Lebanese Ministry of the Interior and had connections with Hezbollah. She had begun her data searches the day after U.S. airstrikes on the Iraqi branch of Hezbollah. Iran had ordered Hezbollah to find ways to strike back at the Americans. Thompson, who was born in Lebanon but moved to the U.S. and became a citizen, was charged with Delivering Defense Information to Aid a Foreign Government and could have been sentenced to life in prison.

Disloyal linguists and translators are not a new problem for the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States military found its need for Arabic translators far exceeded its normal sources which involved training its own personnel. In addition to translators serving with American troops, there was a need for linguists to translate captured documents or recorded conversations. These linguists had to be American citizens so they could get a security clearance. In response, the Department of Defense established the Civilian Linguist Reserve. Those who qualified, in terms of skills and ability to get a security clearance, would be paid a monthly fee to be available in an emergency, to come work for the military. The Pentagon found a lot of civilian American Arabic speakers during the Iraq war who worked for contractors, or directly for the government, to provide translation services in the United States and Iraq. Many of these interpreters are already qualified for the Civilian Linguist Reserve. Same thing with Americans who could speak Afghan languages. Many more of these Afghan-Americans were sought to travel to Afghanistan and serve as interpreters. The pay was very good but there was some danger, and that discouraged some potential volunteers. For more than a decade the U.S. military has relied on these contractors to deal with the continuing shortage of Arabic and Afghan linguists.

For the troops, the problems were worse. By 2005 the army needed 6,200 translators, over 90 percent of them Arab speakers, the rest Afghan (the native Pushtu or Iranian dialect Dari). By 2006 it was up to 7,960 (7,200 Arabic and 750 Afghan). The Department of Defense could not train enough new military interpreters so it had to hire qualified American citizens as contractors and, in Iraq and Afghanistan, local people to serve as translators for the troops. That soon became more difficult in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

The problem was that the local terrorists realized the interpreters were important, and they could, well, terrorize the interpreters into quitting or, even better, becoming a spy. This obviously complicated things for the combat troops who needed the interpreters to get their work done. The solution has been to have the intelligence troops work closely with hiring and monitoring interpreters. These local interpreters were not U.S. citizens and thus unable to get a security clearance. As a result, less thorough screening methods had to be improvised on the spot.

In some parts of Iraq and Afghanistan, the interpreters were hired in secret, and much effort went into keeping their job status secret from the local community. Although the U.S. military has about 17,000 troops who speak languages like Arabic, Chinese, Farsi (Iran), Urdu (Pakistan), Hindi, and Korean, there simply aren't enough for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It didn't take U.S. troops long to realize that the most dangerous intelligence job in Iraq was that of an interpreter. Hundreds were killed by terrorists, including several dozen who were American citizen contractors from the Civilian Linguist Reserve. Many of the Iraqi interpreters, and their families have been allowed to live on American bases, and some were offered permanent residence in the United States. Most of the interpreters regarded the death threats from terrorists as part of the job. It was a good job, paying far more than most other work available in Iraq. Starting salary for interpreters was $600 a month, going up to $1,000 or more for particularly dangerous or difficult assignments. The average monthly salary in Iraq in those days was about a hundred dollars.

The danger was considerable. While two out of every thousand American soldiers serving in Iraq was killed, some 30 out of every thousand translators died. There were proportionately fewer deaths in Afghanistan, where it was still a very dangerous job. For many interpreters, the job was more than a big paycheck. English speaking Iraqis also had a better idea of how things worked in the rest of the world and were eager to help Iraq overcome its gruesome past. Another way to get Arabic interpreters was to hire them from other Arab nations. This wasn't as easy as it sounds, because not a lot of these non-Iraqi Arabs can easily deal with the Iraqi dialect. But the money was attractive, and many linguists in nearby Arab nations learned the Iraqi dialect in order to get these jobs. There is also a feeling that Iraq would soon present many economic opportunities, providing less dangerous work for non-Iraqis who understand the Iraqi dialect. Some Arabic speaking Americans, after one tour in Iraq, came back to help with screening English speaking Arabs applying as interpreters.

To attract the needed number of interpreters, many of the supervisory and screening personnel are hired via contractors. That way, these people, who are in short supply, could be offered enough money to induce them to take on this work. The Department of Defense was able to get enough interpreters for Iraq and Afghanistan operations, but only by hiring a lot of foreigners or foreign-born American citizens. This was risky from a security point of view. Terrorist groups, and hostile governments, can get to these foreign interpreters eventually, and find out a lot about American intelligence techniques. It’s a similar situation with foreign-born American citizens who still have kin in the old country. This is a long-term price to pay in order to deal with the short-term interpreter shortage. Mariam Taha Thompson was the latest example of that long-term risk.




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