Lost in translation

Posted: Jul 13, 2005 12:00 AM

The federal Bureau of Prisons is holding 119 persons with “specific ties” to international Islamist terrorist groups, yet has no full-time Arabic translators or a system to monitor their communications, according to Congressional sources and a whistleblower who now fears retaliation from inmates.

A congressional aide said Bureau of Prisons officials maintain an informal list of 17 employees who are proficient in Arabic.  Prison officials acknowledge, however, that none of the workers had been tested to determine Arabic proficiency or undergone a special screening or background check.

Capitol Hill is starting to notice.

 “It’s ludicrous to think that the Bureau of Prisons doesn’t have a single full-time translator to monitor their communications," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-IA).  He called the current system “a recipe for disaster.”

 “There is no question that the number of Arabic translators should be beefed up as quickly as possible—the very last thing that prisoners should be able to do from behind bars is write a letter to encourage, recruit or aid terrorists in their plans to attack here or around the world,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY).

After inquiries from members of Congress and this journalist, prison officials said last week that they had hired one designated, full-time Arabic translator and plan to hire one more.  But the employee had not begun work as of last week and there was no indication of any fluency test or special background check.

Since the September 11 attacks, authorities have identified prisons as security threats because of recruitment efforts by al Qaeda and other terror groups. But convicted terrorists in federal penitentiaries, including those behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, retain communication privileges and have had direct contact with other terrorists.

The 119 inmates linked to terror groups include 40 thought to be members of al Qaeda and 23 who are “identified as linked to 9/11,” according to a document prepared by the Bureau of Prisons. It is not clear from the document how many fall under both categories.

The difficulty in translating Arabic communications poses a security threat more than just with respect to the 119 inmates tied to terrorists since many prisoners who convert to Islam also learn Arabic, according to Universal Muslim Association of America spokesman Agha Jafri.  There are over 10,000 Muslims in the federal system.

 “There are several known instances in U.S. prisons of known or suspected terrorists communicating with terrorists overseas, or with their followers or other networks that share their ideologies and goals,” counterterrorism consultant Daveed Gartenstein-Ross said.  “Probably the best example is the 14 letters that were exchanged between the convicted World Trade Center bombers and a Spanish terror cell.”

A February 2003 letter from convicted bomber Mohammed Salameh to the Spanish terror cell read in part: "Oh God! Make us live with happiness, make us die as martyrs, may we be united on the Day of Judgment."

Bureau of Prisons spokesman Michael Truman said all inmate phone calls are recorded and all incoming and outgoing letters are scanned or copied. He was not able to say what portion of correspondence of the 119 prisoners tied to Islamic terrorists is monitored promptly, if at all.  Recorded phone calls not listened within six months are automatically deleted.

Although the agency does not employ full-time Arabic translators, Truman said, it uses outside contractors on an ad hoc basis. He did not provide specifics.

The congressional aide said the prison officials acknowledge not having a formal procedure for using translation services of other agencies.

The Justice Department inspector general also warned that federal prisoners were being “radicalized” during religious services conducted in Arabic, and that the prison agency lacked Arabic-speaking employees to monitor the sessions.

To address concerns raised in that audit, the Bureau of Prisons six months ago issued regulations saying that all “sermons, original oratory, teachings and admonitions must be delivered in English.”

Regulations allow each inmate five hours of phone calls per month and unlimited written correspondence, with some exceptions.

Three prisoners are barred from outside communication except with legal counsel. One is Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheik and spiritual mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Another 16 inmates have limited outside contact.

The imprisoned World Trade Center bombers have had regular contact with other inmates in the general prison population, “where they radicalized inmates and told them that terrorism was part of Islam,” according to the audit.

The whistleblower who brought the lack of Arabic translators to public attention fears reprisal from inmates at the federal prison in Lee County, Va., where he is scheduled to return to work this month after an eight-month medical leave.

NBC interviewed Joe Mansour on camera in March and discussed his role in translating Arabic communications of prisoners, including in terror-related cases.

His attorney, Mathew Tully, said Mr. Mansour, who is Muslim, is seen as a traitor by the Muslim population at the prison and is in personal danger.

Despite repeated requests, Mr. Mansour has been denied a transfer to any other prison facility. Mr. Tully says transfer requests are commonplace. "It is extremely uncommon not to grant a transfer," he said.

When questioned by aides to Mr. Grassley, an ardent advocate of whistleblowers, Bureau of Prisons officials complained that Mr. Mansour was not a true whistleblower, a person in attendance said.

The officials suggested that Mr. Mansour was attempting to bootstrap the whistleblowing onto a 2004 discrimination complaint in which he charged harassment from other employees because of his Arab ethnicity.

Mansour is not seeking monetary damages. He first wrote a letter to supervisors in April 2003 saying that Arabic phone calls and letters from suspected and convicted terrorists were going “unmonitored due to a lack of Arabic speaking staff.”

When the BOP internally disseminated the new list of Arabic-speaking employees earlier this year, Mansour’s name was not on the list, which appears to be BOP’s attempt at retaliating against him for filing a discrimination complaint.