Joel Mowbray

Hundreds of stories were written on the topic, from the possibility that Franklin had committed espionage—of which he was not eventually charged—to the possibility that the two AIPAC lobbyists would be indicted, which still looks likely.  Just as with the Rove-Plame affair, the law could have been violated.  But what is known thus far does not indicate any serious breach of national security.

Though there is no evidence that national security has been compromised by the Arabic translators used by the Bureau of Prisons, the possibility that it has cannot be ignored.  And unlike the two cases the media drools over, the threat posed by BOP’s procedures is ongoing.

Explains a veteran FBI agent, “Anytime you have someone translating communications of a terrorist, of course that person should have been polygraphed [and have a security clearance].”  Adds another federal law enforcement official, “It goes without saying that people who translate for the USG [U.S. government] on any level or matter without a security clearance is absolutely preposterous and should not be tolerated.”

Communications of the 119 imprisoned terrorists are apparently not classified—which is why BOP’s translators have no clearances—but common sense dictates that they should be.  What if one of BOP’s translators has family in Yemen or Syria, or some other nation, and secretly harbors resentment for the United States?  Or what if one of them learns something and sells his knowledge to the highest bidder?

Yet even if the 17 BOP employees who voluntarily do translations in addition to their full-time work (that is their “system”) are loyal Americans of unimpeachable integrity—and they easily might be—BOP has no idea how well any of them actually understand Arabic.  BOP does not test its translators for fluency.

Even basic fluency, though, isn’t always enough.  Anything said or written by a terrorist, even if innocuous on its face, could have some larger meaning not detected by a layman.  A colloquialism used by a Saudi, for example, might not be picked up by someone who primarily speaks the Egyptian dialect of Arabic.

Seemingly in response to inquiries from this journalist and from Capitol Hill, BOP has already made at least a surface improvement in hiring one full-time translator, with plans to hire one more.  That was just from one article. 

Imagine what could happen if just a fraction of the Rove-Plame media maelstrom could instead focus on the scandal involving terrorists.

Joel Mowbray

Joel Mowbray, who got his start with, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.

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