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Inability to translate Arabic an impediment to probes
While terrorists were planning the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, FBI agents received taped phone conversations of one of the plotters, Palestinian Ahmad Ajaj. He was talking about explosives.
But the agents didnt speak Arabic, and what might have become a vital tool in averting disaster was instead relegated to a backlog of items needing translation.
Then the bomb exploded, killing six and injuring more than 1,000. The translated tapes didnt come to light until Ajajs trial.
In the wake of last weeks far more devastating terrorist attacks, authorities worry that similar evidence might yet be buried in thick files of untranslated tapes and documents. Their concern illustrates what has become a chronic post-Cold War problem for U.S. law enforcement and intelligence communities in the fight against terrorism -- a severe shortage of experts fluent in the languages and cultures of dangerous states and organizations.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller put out a public call this week for translators fluent in Arabic and Farsi. Last year, the bureau asked Congress for an additional $5 million for translations, and then- Director Louis J. Freeh cited "short-term, mission-critical criminal and national security investigations."
The National Security Agency, which specializes in international electronic eavesdropping, is asking on its Web site for experts in Asian, Middle Eastern and Slavic languages.
But the need for language and cultural reinforcements may be just as great out in the field, especially when agents and investigators journey abroad in search of clues and informants.
"To say wed be better off with more people immersed in culture and language is like saying a football team would be better off with bigger, stronger guys," said Frank Anderson, a former chief of the CIAs Near East Division. "Every bit of language, every bit of culture that youve got, makes it easier. There has been a degradation in recent years. Too little money, too few people."
The shortcoming has been painfully apparent in FBI investigations of bombings on U.S. targets abroad in recent years, said Larry Johnson, a security consultant who is a former deputy director of the State Departments Office of Counterterrorism.
Johnson has compared FBI staffing methods in such cases -- the bureau puts out a nationwide call for agents willing to go abroad -- to the naivete of Andy Hardy movies, in which teen-agers played by Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland cheerily announce, time after time, "Lets put on a show!"
As a result, he said, agents arrive in foreign lands not only unable to speak the language, but also unable to read cultural cues, meaning theyre more likely to alienate local police.
"The worst of it is, they did it in Dhahran in 96, in East Africa in 98 and then in Yemen after the bombing of the Cole," Johnson said. "Youd think there would be a learning curve, but every time they just throw out a dragnet [for agents]."
During the East Africa investigation, after the bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, FBI agents were stumped in particular by a highly unusual local language and never found anyone with proper security clearance who could translate.
Former CIA operative Reuel Marc Gerecht painted an even bleaker picture of what a threadbare cultural grounding can mean in an article published by the Atlantic Monthly two months before the Sept. 11 attack.
Gerecht characterized CIA counterterrorism operations as a deskbound bureaucratic failure, and he quoted another former operative as saying: "The CIA probably doesnt have a single truly qualified Arabic-speaking officer of Middle Eastern background who can play a believable Muslim fundamentalist who would volunteer to spend years of his life with [lousy] food and no women in the mountains of Afghanistan. For Christs sake, most case officers live in the suburbs of Virginia. We dont do that kind of thing."
Not that any operative holding an American passport, no matter how fluent he might be in the local dialect, would be able to do much about infiltrating an organization such as Osama bin Ladens, says Milt Bearden, a former agency station chief in Pakistan.
"If youre going to do it, its going to be done with somebody named Mohamed or Ahmed," Bearden said.
And that, Anderson said, means, "You have to recruit people who can do it."
But who will recruit the locals if no one speaks or dresses like them or frequents the same places? Agency operatives in such areas tend to be hopelessly detached from the surrounding culture, Johnson said, giving them little opportunity for recruitment.
"In the Cold War, the CIA would go to diplomatic functions to meet Soviets," Johnson said. "Where do you go to meet these guys in Afghanistan?"
Indeed, the governments foreign language needs have changed drastically from the Cold War, when intelligence and defense agents could rely primarily on Russian experts.
Even the monolithic Soviet Union has become a polyglot of 15 republics, with hundreds of ethnic enclaves, each with its native language or dialect.
The FBI has shown that having enough people with foreign language skills pays off.
After the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, FBI investigators were able to block other possible attacks when translators discovered that the radical followers of Egyptian Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman were using the Arabic word hadutta -- which means a childs bedtime story -- as a code word for bombs.
David E. Alba, the FBI assistant director who oversees the language division, told The Sun last year that investigators knew something was wrong when the suspects talked about "buying oil and fertilizer for the haduttas."
The FBI has about 400 people working in its Language Services Section, but officials declined to say how many speak Arabic and Farsi. A senior FBI official said the response had been strong to Muellers request for more speakers of those languages.
The CIA, too, has had a surge of applicants since last weeks attacks, Anderson said, and he is hopeful that some of them might be Arab Americans, rising to the defense of their country much in the way that German- Americans used their fluency in both languages to assist army intelligence during World War II, at home and in the field.
"The number of candidates well get from that community is going to go up," he said.
But even if the agency and the FBI end up flush with new recruits, some people will always wonder whether events might have been different Sept. 11 if more help had been available sooner.
"Had they been able to process all of that [intelligence] information beforehand, there might have been information that could have helped," said Richard D. Brecht, director of the University of Marylands National Foreign Language Center. "Its just that they dont have the budget or the staff."