Federal Bureau of Investigation's Foreign Language Translation Program Follow-Up
Audit Report 05-33
Office of the Inspector General
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) ability to translate foreign language materials is critical to national security. The FBI must have the capacity to prioritize, translate, and understand in a timely fashion the large amount of foreign language materials that it collects. These translations support its two highest investigative priorities — counterterrorism and counterintelligence — as well as criminal and cyber-crimes programs, international training and deployments, and interpreting and interviewing.
Because of the importance of these issues, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) completed an audit in July 2004 of the FBI’s Foreign Language Translation Program. The OIG’s 157-page audit, entitled “The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Foreign Language Program — Translation of Counterterrorism and Counterintelligence Foreign Language Material,” examined:
That audit found that the FBI’s collection of material requiring translation had outpaced its translation capabilities, and therefore the FBI could not translate all foreign language counterterrorism and counterintelligence material it collected. The audit also found that the FBI had difficulty in filling its critical need for additional contract linguists. In addition, the audit reported that the FBI’s digital audio collection systems had limited storage capacity and that audio sessions were sometimes deleted to make room for new incoming audio sessions. With respect to the FBI’s Quality Control Program for linguists, the audit found that the FBI was not in full compliance with the standards it had adopted for reviews of the work of newly hired linguists, as well as annual reviews for permanent and contract linguists with over one year of experience.
In March and April 2005, the OIG conducted a follow-up examination of the findings in our July 2004 audit. The purpose of the follow-up review was to evaluate the FBI’s progress in responding to the recommendations made in the audit report.
The follow-up review concluded that the FBI has taken important steps to address the OIG’s recommendations and has made progress in improving the operations of the Foreign Language Program. For example, the FBI now sets specific target staffing levels for linguists that account for attrition and, as of March 30, 2005, has achieved 56 percent of current hiring goals, has begun to identify counterterrorism cases with significant backlog on the Counterterrorism FISA Monthly Survey, and has addressed digital collection system storage limitations that can cause audio sessions to be deleted. Although we found during our follow-up review that unreviewed translation materials were still being deleted, no unreviewed counterterrorism or Al Qaeda sessions had been deleted.
However, key deficiencies remain in the FBI’s foreign language translation program, including a continuing backlog of unreviewed material, some instances where high-priority material has not been reviewed within 24 hours in accord with FBI policy, and continued challenges in meeting linguist hiring goals and target staffing levels. Implementation of the Quality Control Program has been slow, although the FBI recently has made improvements in this area.
Below, we describe the findings of our follow-up review regarding progress made by the FBI since our July 2004 audit, as well as the FBI’s continuing challenges.
Foreign Language Translation Workload and Unreviewed Material
Our follow-up review assessed the FBI’s progress since our July 2004 report in addressing the volume of unreviewed counterterrorism and counterintelligence audio material (“backlog”) that it collects in its National Foreign Intelligence Program.1 In the following sections, we first update the amount of counterterrorism and counterintelligence material collected by the FBI. We then examine the amount of unreviewed audio material, first by counterterrorism material and then by counterintelligence material.
Our follow-up review found that the FBI’s increased need for foreign language translations has continued. Table A depicts the amount of counterterrorism and counterintelligence material collected through the end of FY 2004 (as of September 30, 2004).2
As Table A illustrates, the FBI’s counterterrorism audio workload has increased by 19 percent from FY 2003 to FY 2004. The counterterrorism text workload increased by 52 percent during the same period. With regard to the counterintelligence workload, audio collection has decreased by 14 percent and text collection decreased by 24 percent during this same period.3
Table A: FOREIGN LANGUAGE WORKLOAD
Unreviewed Audio Material
Our July 2004 report found the FBI had a significant backlog in translating counterterrorism and counterintelligence FISA audio material. Table B provides the amount of audio collected and unreviewed through the end of first quarter of FY 2004 (as of December 31, 2003) and also through the end of the second quarter of FY 2005 (as of March 31, 2005). As that table demonstrates, the FBI’s collection of audio material continues to outpace its ability to review and translate all that material.
Table B: TOTAL AUDIO COLLECTED AND UNREVIEWED
As Table B demonstrates, the total collections of counterterrorism and counterintelligence audio material increased from approximately 1.6 million hours as of December 31, 2003, to approximately 2.5 million as of March 31, 2005. During the same time period, the total amount of unreviewed audio increased from 478,573 hours to 707,742 hours. As a percentage of total collections, the percentage of unreviewed audio material remained relatively constant, only slightly decreasing from 29 percent to 27 percent.
As shown in Table B, the FBI reported in its monthly counterterrorism FISA surveys that the accrued unreviewed counterterrorism audio was 24,786 hours as of December 31, 2003, and has increased to 38,514 hours as of March 31, 2005.
However, in its monthly surveys, the FBI attempts to refine the amount of counterterrorism audio that is reported as unreviewed by the FBI’s data collection system. The FBI tries to eliminate double counting of unreviewed material by more than one field office, unreviewed material in cases that are no longer active, and collections of materials from the wrong sources due to technical problems. To determine the amounts of unreviewed material that should be eliminated on the monthly surveys, FBI field offices submit what they believe is their total accrued backlog after eliminating these items. The FBI then accumulates the field offices’ submissions to reach a refined estimate of the total amount of unreviewed counterterrorism audio material.
According to this method, our July 2004 audit reported that the FBI’s estimated counterterrorism audio backlog was 4,086 hours as of April 2004. In this follow-up review, according to this same method, we found that the counterterrorism audio backlog had increased to 8,354 hours as of March 2005. Therefore, according to this method, the counterterrorism backlog represented 1 percent of all counterterrorism audio collected as of April 2004, and 1.5 percent of all counterterrorism audio collected as of March 2005.
In addition, in this follow-up review we attempted to determine the priority of the counterterrorism material that was not reviewed. The FBI designates one of five levels of priority to its counterterrorism cases. We found that none of the counterterrorism audio backlog as of March 2005 was in the highest level priority cases. However, almost all of the 8,354 hours of counterterrorism backlog reported by the FBI was in cases designated in the second and third highest priority levels. Seventy-two percent of this backlog was in the FBI’s second highest priority counterterrorism cases, and 27 percent was in the third highest priority.
With respect to counterintelligence material, as Table A shows total collections increased from approximately 1.3 million hours as of December 31, 2003, to 2 million hours as of March 31, 2005. The amount of unreviewed counterintelligence material increased from 453,787 hours to 669,228 hours during this same period. The percentage of unreviewed counterintelligence material remained relatively constant, decreasing only slightly from 34 percent to 33 percent.
In response, the FBI stated that it collects significant amounts of audio material that it does not intend to translate, either immediately or possibly ever. For example, it stated that the FBI’s digital collection systems cannot reliably filter out “white noise” (acoustical or electrical noise) and unintelligible audio, which is collected but does not need to be reviewed. In addition, the FBI stated that in many counterintelligence cases it collects audio material that it stores and only translates if additional information points to those materials as containing significant information that should be reviewed. It stated that it believes that most of the unreviewed counterintelligence backlog fell into these categories, although it could not quantify or verify these amounts.
In sum, this follow-up review found that the FBI’s collection of audio material continues to outpace its ability to review and translate that material. The amount of unreviewed FBI counterterrorism and counterintelligence audio material has increased since our July 2004 report. According to the FBI’s calculations, the backlog of unreviewed counterterrorism material has increased from 4,086 to 8,354 hours, which represents 1.5 percent of total counterterrorism audio collections. The amount of unreviewed counterintelligence material also has increased. While the FBI believes that most of the unreviewed materials may not need to be translated, it has no assurance that all this counterterrorism and counterintelligence material does not need to be reviewed or translated.
Hiring of Linguists
The organization and structure of the FBI’s Foreign Language Program has continued to evolve since our July 2004 audit. The Foreign Language Program is now a component of the FBI’s Directorate of Intelligence. As reported in our July 2004 audit report, the number of FBI and contract linguists had increased from 883 in FY 2001 to 1,214 as of April 2004. Since then, the number of FBI and contract linguists has increased to 1,338 as of March 30, 2005.
The FBI has made progress in improving its hiring process since our July 2004 review, although it still continues to face challenges hiring linguists. We found that the FBI met 62 percent of its hiring goals for FY 2004, and as of March 30, 2005, had met 56 percent of its hiring goals in FY 2005.6 As of March 30, 2005, target staffing levels have been achieved in 23 of 52 languages for which target levels were established.
A continuing challenge for the FBI is the time it takes to hire contract linguists. Since our July 2004 audit, according to the FBI, the average time it takes the FBI to hire a contract linguist has increased by at least 1 month from 13 months to 14 months. However, according to our review of the FBI’s data, it now takes the FBI 16 months on average to hire a contract linguist. While the FBI’s figure of 14 months only counted the amount of time to complete the four major parts of the hiring process, our figure of 16 months accounted for the total time it takes the FBI to process an application. According to a business process engineering firm hired by the FBI after our July 2004 report to study the linguist hiring process, over 70 percent of the processing time is spent waiting in queue (that is, work is not being performed on the applications because of personnel, space, technology, or facilities bottlenecks).7
Prioritization of Workload
In our follow-up review, we performed testing to determine if the FBI was reviewing material designated as “high priority” within 24 hours. Our testing of eight FBI field offices for three separate days in April 2005 found that three offices had not reviewed all high priority material within 24 hours on all three dates. A classified Appendix to this report contains details on high priority audio unreviewed more than 24 hours after receipt.
As we described in our July 2004 report, because the FBI field offices’ digital collection systems have limited storage capacity, audio sessions resident on a system are sometimes deleted through an automatic file deletion procedure to make room for incoming audio sessions. Although these sessions are archived, it is difficult for the FBI to determine, once these sessions have been deleted and archived, whether they have been reviewed. We found that sessions are automatically deleted in a set order, and unreviewed sessions are sometimes included in the material deleted, especially in offices with a high volume of audio to review.
We reported in July 2004 that the FBI had not established necessary controls to prevent critical audio material from being automatically deleted, such as protecting sessions of the highest priority on digital collection systems’ active on-line storage until linguists reviewed them. In our July 2004 audit, we reported that the results of our tests showed that three of eight offices tested had Al Qaeda sessions that potentially were deleted by the system before linguists had reviewed them. We recommended that the FBI establish necessary controls to prevent critical audio material from being deleted.
During our follow-up review this year, we tested data for eight offices to determine if unreviewed translation material was still being deleted. The results of our testing showed that no unreviewed counterterrorism or Al Qaeda sessions had been deleted at the eight offices. However, unreviewed counterintelligence material had been deleted and archived at six of the eight offices.
Quality Control Program
In response to our July 2004 report, the FBI modified its Translation Quality Control Policy and Guidelines. These revisions became effective on December 30, 2004. The modified policy and guidelines now require, for example, the use of certified reviewers, when available; anonymous reviews, when possible; the review of randomly selected materials marked as “Not Pertinent” by a linguist, in addition to review of summary and verbatim translations; a review for each language in which at least 20 percent of a linguist’s time is spent translating; prompt feedback to resolve deficiencies; and guidance with regard to action that should be taken when results of the reviews are unsatisfactory.
Although we believe the changes address concerns raised in our July 2004 audit, we could not perform testing to determine compliance with the modified guidelines for quality control reviews because a summary of the results of the first quarterly report under the modified quality control policy was not made available to the OIG until May 25, 2005, after we had completed our fieldwork.
During our fieldwork in March 2005, we found that the FBI still had no system in place on a nation-wide basis to ensure that its field offices were performing quality control reviews or were monitoring results of the reviews. In July 2005, the FBI provided documentation that they now have a tracking system in place for monitoring the reviews and the results of those reviews.
We found during our follow-up work that even when field offices had provided appropriate forms documenting completed reviews to the Language Services Section (LSS), this information had not been entered into a tracking system. On July 12, 2005, the FBI provided the OIG spreadsheets they have recently begun using to monitor the reports from the field offices and to track the results of the quality control reviews. LSS staff told us that in order to adequately monitor the quality control program, the FBI would need to hire additional linguists to address the compliance requirements of new linguists and the annual reviews of full-time and contract linguists. For example, the Section Chief of the LSS told the OIG that 10 of 274 language analysts the FBI hopes to hire in FY 2006 would be dedicated to quality control reviews. The Section Chief also told us that the additional 10 language analysts should provide enough resources for full implementation of the quality control program.
The success of the FBI’s foreign language translation efforts is critical to its national security mission. In our July 2004 audit, the OIG found several important areas in the FBI’s foreign language program that needed improvement. We believe that since issuance of the July 2004 report the FBI has taken significant steps to address many of our recommendations and has made progress in improving the operations of the Foreign Language Program. However, key deficiencies remain, including a continuing amount of unreviewed material, instances where “high priority” material has not been reviewed within 24 hours, and continued challenges in meeting linguist hiring goals and target staffing levels.