Senators Want 'Top to Bottom' Review of FBI Anti-Terror Unit

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:20 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( - A senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday called for a "top-to-bottom" review of the FBI units responsible for translating suspected terrorist communications into English, saying he is "not entirely confident" that the FBI has been honest with the committee.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote FBI Director Robert Mueller Monday, expressing concern over problems with the bureau's translation capabilities, "particularly at the Washington Field Office."

"The FBI's translation capabilities are crucial to the war on terrorism, particularly preventing attacks. Translations provide essential intelligence to agents investigating suspected terrorists," Grassley wrote. "A review team with members from the National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, State Department and military branches should conduct a top-to-bottom examination of the FBI's translation units.

Grassley said he is especially concerned about how long it takes to translate documents and recordings.

"The FBI in most cases does not know what it's listening to and thus cannot prioritize the translation," he wrote. "So if agents have a recording of terrorists planning an impending attack, the translation may come too late."

Questions about the timeliness, efficiency, accuracy and management of translation services first came to light in reports from the General Accounting Office and the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. But a former FBI contract linguist drew intense scrutiny to the program when she reported possible security lapses.

In an Aug. 13 letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft, Grassley and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) noted that after whistleblower Sibel Edmonds alerted the FBI to her concerns, "nearly every person at the FBI who was notified of the situation reacted by questioning why Ms. Edmonds was causing trouble."

In the letter, the senators detail the allegations made by Edmonds:

    A translator/supervisor in her unit chose not to translate important, intelligence-related information, instead limiting her translation to unimportant and innocuous material;
    The same supervisor once worked for a Turkish organization that was a target of the FBI's counter-intelligence unit, and had a relationship with a Turkish intelligence officer who was under investigation; and
    The supervisor incorrectly translated recordings of conversations relevant to the investigation between that Turkish intelligence officer and other parties.

Edmonds was fired by the FBI and has filed suit. The bureau responded by demanding that the suit be dismissed under the "state secrets privilege."

Barbara Comstock, director of public affairs for the FBI, explained that, "the litigation creates substantial risks of disclosing classified and sensitive national security information that could cause serious damage to our country's security."

She said the demand invokes "an absolute privilege that renders the information unavailable in litigation."

Leahy and Grassley expressed the hope in their Aug. 13 letter that the original raw recordings be maintained and translated by an independent third party, and that the bureau cooperate fully with a Justice Department Inspector General's probe into Edmonds' firing and the alleged security breaches.

"Even after verifying some of these allegations, the FBI downplayed the importance of this matter and seemed to imply that it had ceased looking into the complaints," the senators wrote. "Anyone who remembers the long-time treachery of former FBI Supervisor Robert Hanssen would be concerned at this reaction."

Hanssen, a 56-year-old FBI counterintelligence specialist, spied on the U.S. for Russia for 16 years. His actions were initially determined to be "minor security breaches, unworthy of serious consideration," according to the senators. He was arrested in the act of leaving classified information at a "dead drop" location for later retrieval by Russian agents.

"If even routine diligence had been exercised earlier, Hanssen could have been stopped from doing untold damage," they concluded. "The FBI needs to learn from its mistakes."

As the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs, Grassley has been an outspoken supporter of protecting government whistleblowers from retaliation. His letter requested a response from Mueller by Nov. 25.

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