While the media has obsessed over two high-profile cases in recent months involving improper handling of classified information, communications involving terrorists have been getting translated by people without any security clearances—and there’s been nary a whimper from most of the Washington press corps.
There are 119 inmates in the federal prison system with “specific ties” to international Islamic terrorist organizations, and almost all of them are able to communicate with the outside world through phone calls and letters. (Full disclosure: this journalist broke the story on the front page of the Washington Times two weeks ago.) Not only did the Bureau of Prisons have, until recently, no full-time Arabic translators, but the people they were—and still are—using have undergone no special background check beyond the pro forma one conducted on all federal employees.
To put it simply, the communications of 119 convicted and suspected terrorists housed in federal prisons are being handled by people who have no security clearances. They haven’t been put through a polygraph test, had their family histories thoroughly vetted, their character analyzed, or their neighbors interviewed—all basic elements of investigations required before granting someone security clearances.
While the mainstream press has showed little appetite for a story with obvious national security implications, it has feasted on every morsel in the Karl Rove-Joe Wilson-Valerie Plame kerfuffle. It’s true that the law may have been broken, but that is the job of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to determine. Yet the press corps has been playing judge and jury, analyzing what we do know—from every possible angle.
But as it stands now, it appears that no law was broken. Mike Isikoff at Newsweek has provided the most information, and his reporting on an e-mail written by Time reporter Matt Cooper suggests that the journalist brought up the topic of Wilson and that Rove mentioned neither Ms. Plame’s name nor her covert status. This doesn’t necessarily mean no laws were broken, but it should at the least dampen the hyperbolic speculation.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t.
Another recent scandal centered on classified information was also quite the rage—until getting bumped by the now white-hot Plame game. Defense Department analyst Larry Franklin was charged with improper handling of classified information, allegedly discussing the administration's internal policy debates on Iran with lobbyists from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
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, who got his start with Townhall.com, 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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