Despite major increases in money and personnel, the FBI is still failing to translate many al-Qaida surveillance recordings in a timely manner and faces a giant backlog of untranslated material from terrorism and espionage investigations, a new Justice Department audit shows. The report released Monday by Glenn A. Fine, the department’s inspector general, found more than one-third of al-Qaida intercepts authorized by a secret federal court were not reviewed within 12 hours of collection, as required by FBI Director Robert Mueller. Since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 123,000 hours of audio in languages associated with terrorists still had not been reviewed as of April 2004, the audit found. In addition, more than 370,000 hours of audio associated with counterintelligence had not been reviewed. This backlog existed even though money for the FBI’s language services had increased from $21.5 million in fiscal 2001 to about $70 million in fiscal 2004. (The whole story.) So more money doesn’t equal better performance? Big surprise. Remember, this is how the FBI treats would-be reformers: [S]hortly after joining the bureau’s Washington field office, [former FBI interpreter Sibel Edmonds] said she encountered sloppy work by colleagues and was told by superiors to work slower so the bureau might justify demands for a bigger budget. “I was warned that if I were to make these issues public and take them outside the bureau I would be retaliated against and I would be fired. And exactly that’s what occurred,” she said. It’s one thing if there’s a backlog at the post office, or the DMV, but the FBI? After 9/11, after this huge push to fight terror? Even before 9/11 there were plenty of signs that our intelligence agencies had to evolve to address a new kind of threat. If this is how bureaucracy operates when everyone’s looking, imagine what’s going on in all those agencies that never make headlines.
Ted Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining.