The FBI must translate a million pages and untold hours of intercepted
conversations a year, and faces a mounting backlog that inhibits its ability
to prevent some crimes and investigate others.
The need for language proficiency has grown as security threats have
fragmented and the ability to eavesdrop has expanded.
But government layoffs and employee buyouts have trimmed foreign language
expertise drastically, said Theodore Crump, who is updating a book
cataloging the federal government's foreign language needs. These days, most
agencies can only hope to catch up with, rather than anticipate, their
"Back in 1985 the terrorist thing didn't really come up," he said of the
year he first prepared the book. "Now, when you have the possibility of
someone coming in with a weapon of mass destruction in a suitcase, it
changes the whole picture," he told the Times.
While the Cold War's end has brought waves of immigrants with knowledge of
obscure languages to the United States, law enforcement and intelligence
agencies have been reluctant to hire great numbers of them, citing a
weakness in English and, frequently, difficulties in gaining security
clearances for them.
Intelligence agencies say they are frequently caught short in times of
crisis, lacking a sufficient pool of agents and analysts with needed
languages, from Arabic to Korean and – most recently – Macedonian.
A sobering illustration, the newspaper said, came in 1993. When a band of
trained terrorists plotted to blow up the World Trade Center, clues to the
future devastation were available to law enforcement officials.
The FBI held videotapes, manuals and notebooks on bomb making that had
been seized from Ahmad Ajaj, a Palestinian serving time in federal prison
for passport fraud. There were phone calls the prison had taped, in which
Ajaj guardedly told another terrorist how to build the bomb.
There was one problem: They were in Arabic. Nobody who understood Arabic
listened to them until after the explosion at the Trade Center on Feb. 26,
1993, which killed six people and injured more than a thousand.
Copyright 2001 by United Press International. All rights reserved.
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