<<Home Niagara Falls Reporter Archive>>


By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- Somewhat lost in all the media mist over who won last week's initial debate in the presidential election is a stinging John Kerry reference to late September news that I thought would draw much more play and citizen attention than it did. It should have triggered a public furor.

Anello's Budget
Publisher Letter
Hanchette: Mt. Views
Staba: Citycide
Local History

Three days before the Kerry-Bush face-off in Miami, the Justice Department released a classified summary of a frightening report by that agency's Inspector General. The bad news literally sent a chill down my spine.

The IG investigation discovered that 123,000 hours of eavesdropped recordings related to possible terrorist plans since the Sept. 11 attacks are still sitting around the FBI -- yet to be listened to, yet to be translated.

Not only that, but "computer problems" in the FBI's notorious Fred Flintstone software and hard drives have systematically erased many apparent al-Qaeda recordings before FBI agents and linguists could get to them. In other words, limited computer storage capacity in the sluggish FBI system has automatically resulted in the obliteration of older material to make room for new. Same thing happens on my creaky old tube.

Kerry's rebuke -- a verbal drive-by shooting in the Miami debate -- came on the heels of a statement by President Bush to the effect that his administration "has to be right" 100 percent of the time, while "the enemy only has to be right once." The Democratic challenger shot back that "we now learn the FBI has over 100,000 hours" of potential terrorism tapes that are unlistened to.

"On one of those tapes may be the enemy being right just once," warned Kerry.

Bush, on split screen, screwed up his face in a there-you-go-again look, but dodged the issue throughout, devoting the rest of the blabbering match to his Kerry-is-a-flip-flopper mantra. The president's spinners, of course, never mentioned it.

This is scary stuff.

On Sept. 10, 2001 -- the day before the infamous attack that changed all our lives -- the National Security Agency intercepted from its worldwide listening posts provocative messages like "Tomorrow is zero hour" and "The match is about to begin."

They were in Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages.

They were not translated until several days after the 9/11 attacks.

At the time, the FBI had about 880 translators -- far too few of them capable of translating the several Muslim-usage languages we now associate with terrorism. The FBI started advertising online for anyone who could speak Arabic, Farsi, Pashtun and several other languages.

Astonishing starting salaries were offered. At least one FBI linguist already on board complained loudly that the quick, new hires were leaving the bureau open to the threat of internal espionage.

She was fired for her temerity, and the FBI's assessment of her observations is still classified. I was hoping Kerry would blurt out something about that rancid situation to the scowling Bush.

Congress and the White House quickly coughed up another $48 million to hire linguists fluent in these difficult and very nuanced tongues. The number of translators now employed by the FBI is slightly more than 1,200. If one does the math, it's still a mind-boggling and horrific proposition.

Even at maximum efficiency, it still means each translator would have about 100 hours of tapes to wade through just in listening to this immense pile of recordings. Then it would take even more time to complete intelligent translations of them.

Even if the FBI's antiquated computers can be quickly upgraded, counting for coffee breaks, other non-terrorist workload, vacations, sick time, down time, medical and pregnancy leave, report writing, case officer briefing, tape restoration time, reduced workweek time, etc., you're looking at an FBI that is about a year behind in translating conversations the Pentagon and White House may need to know about yesterday. And that's counting on 100 percent maximum concentration in a task that is deadly go-to-sleep boring.

The material from the NSA is still cascading in, of course, from intercepted phone calls, e-mails, voice mails, bugged conversations, confiscated documents, electronically surveilled faxes, Project Echelon listening post recordings, wiretapped discussions and human intelligence recordings and reports.

Much of the undeciphered material was garnered right here in the United States under surveillance warrants issued here.

But all the intercepts are useless unless deciphered.

The FBI can't even figure out how to prioritize the work.

And the IG's summary is only the tip of a much broader classified report. If they're telling us the above, think what they aren't telling us.

Members of the House and Senate who have been briefed on the matter have told The New York Times and other papers the picture is even worse than portrayed in the IG report.

How bad is it? Well, the official FBI policy is that all potential al-Qaeda intercepts get reviewed within half a day of reception. The IG went through more than 800 intercepts and found that in at least 36 percent of those, that strict deadline was missed. In about 50 of the reviewed al-Qaeda conversations, it took at least a month to translate them.

And keep in mind, these untranslated, unlistened to, suspicious foreign language intercepts are but a small part of the Matterhorn of material collected.

For all languages, the IG said almost half-a-million hours of audio tapes remain ignored. Who knows what our enemies said in English or French?

Congress is starting to pay attention to this dangerous gap in performance.

President Bush should.

The complacent American public probably won't give it a second thought.


John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Oct. 5 2004