Federal Bureau of Investigation's Foreign Language Translation Program Follow-Up
Audit Report 05-33
Office of the Inspector General
The FBI’s linguists play a critical role in developing effective counterterrorism and counterintelligence information. Linguists are the first line of analysis for information collected in a language other than English. For example, linguists must sort through thousands of hours of intercepted telephone conversations to identify pertinent material. The value of this information is often subtle because the parties involved may suspect they are being monitored. Linguists also must be able to recognize coded words or cryptic implications of a conversation. This requires high standards of language proficiency and cultural knowledge. Reviewing the vast amounts of audio information collected presents significant management challenges for the FBI, including prioritizing the workload and balancing limited resources.
Our July 2004 audit report described the significant evolution of the FBI’s Foreign Language Program from a decentralized operation to one that was more centralized at FBI Headquarters. At the time of that audit, the Language Services Section (LSS) at FBI Headquarters managed the FBI’s growing language translation program, which used more than 1,200 linguists stationed across the United States in 52 FBI field offices and Headquarters.
Our report also described how the Foreign Language Program had experienced a large influx of funding since September 11, 2001, increasing from $21.5 million in fiscal year (FY) 2001 to slightly over $66 million in FY 2004. The number of linguists also grew from 883 in FY 2001 to 1,214 as of April 2004. According to the FBI, as of April 2004 it had hired linguists at the maximum rate that its funding allowed.
At the same time, the FBI’s electronic surveillance collection in languages primarily related to counterterrorism activities increased dramatically — by 45 percent when comparing total collection in FY 2003 to total collection in FY 2001. The FBI expected translation growth rates in these languages to increase by at least 15 percent annually.
Our July 2004 audit found that the FBI’s collection of material requiring translation had outpaced its translation capabilities, and the FBI could not translate all the foreign language counterterrorism and counterintelligence material it collected. As of the first quarter of FY 2004, the FBI reported that nearly 24 percent of ongoing FISA counterintelligence and counterterrorism intercepts were not monitored. According to the LSS official who prepared this information, during the first quarter of FY 2004 the FBI only had linguist capacity to review 76 percent of the intercepts collected. The official stated that the FBI reviewed all the counterterrorism information it collects, but not all counterintelligence information.
With respect to unreviewed audio material, the FBI maintained statistics only on the backlog for counterterrorism FISA cases and only by case, not by language. In addition, the FBI stated that its data could not be used reliably to determine the precise amount of unreviewed material that needed to be translated because of the imprecision of the translation workload reporting process and the FBI digital collection systems’ inability to filter unintelligible audio and modem tones, which do not require translation. However, the FBI’s statistics indicated that, as of April 2004, 4,086 hours of FISA recordings in counterterrorism cases were unreviewed.
In addition, the July 2004 audit report calculated the number of hours of unreviewed counterterrorism and counterintelligence audio in languages that the FBI classifies as traditionally associated with counterterrorism and counterintelligence. While recognizing limitations of this calculation, our analysis of the FBI’s data in our July 2004 audit indicated that since September 11, 2001, more than 119,000 hours of audio in languages traditionally associated with counterterrorism cases had not been reviewed. Additionally, we found that more than 370,000 hours of audio in languages traditionally associated with counterintelligence activities had not been reviewed.9
Because the FBI did not maintain statistical records distinguishing this unreviewed material by specific language or type of case, we could not precisely determine which unreviewed material was associated with counterintelligence cases and which was associated with counterterrorism cases. FBI Foreign Language officials told the OIG that most of the material we reported as unreviewed in our July 2004 report was associated with counterintelligence cases.
In our July 2004 report, we attributed the FBI’s backlog of unreviewed counterterrorism and counterintelligence material to an insufficient number of linguists, as well as limitations in the FBI’s translation information technology systems.
We found that the FBI had difficulty in filling its critical need for additional contract linguists. Although the FBI received many applications, the FBI estimated that the contract linguist vetting process eliminated over 90 percent of the applicants processed for hiring.10 For those applicants who passed the vetting process and were hired, we found that the applicant processing cycle took approximately 13 months.
In addition to hiring difficulties, our audit determined that the FBI’s digital collection systems had limited storage capacity and that audio sessions were sometimes deleted to make room for new incoming audio sessions. Although sessions were automatically deleted in a set order, we found that unreviewed sessions were sometimes included in the material deleted, especially in offices with a high volume of translation work. Three of eight offices we tested had sessions related to Al Qaeda that potentially were deleted by the system before linguists had reviewed them.
According to FBI officials, at the time of our audit the FBI’s stated expectation was that counterterrorism FISA audio should be reviewed within 24 hours of interception. In addition, FBI policy required Al Qaeda FISA audio to be reviewed within 12 hours of interception. However, we found that during April 2004 36 percent of intercepted Al Qaeda FISA audio sessions forwarded to the Language Services Translation Center at FBI Headquarters for translation were not even received within 12 hours.
Our audit also examined the FBI’s Quality Control Program for linguists, which was designed to ensure that the work of linguists was reviewed periodically for accuracy. We found that the FBI was not in full compliance with standards for required reviews for newly hired linguists, as well as annual reviews for permanent and contract linguists with over one year of experience.
Our audit report contained 18 recommendations to help improve the FBI’s Foreign Language Program, including:
The FBI generally was receptive to the audit’s recommendations and agreed to take corrective action.
This follow-up review, conducted in March and April 2005, assessed the FBI’s progress since our July 2004 report in responding to our recommendations and in addressing the volume of unreviewed counterterrorism and counterintelligence audio material (backlog) that it collects in its National Foreign Intelligence Program.11
In the sections that follow, we provide the results of our follow-up review, first examining the extent of unreviewed counterterrorism and counterintelligence material.