Recent news about arrests of two translators and a chaplain at Guantanamo Bay have been disquieting. James Robbins provides some useful perspective, pointing out, specifically with reference to the arrest of Ahmed Mehalba: “Either this was a counterintelligence sting operation planned far in advance, or our national-security apparatus is way too desperate for Arab speakers.”
On balance, Robbins inclines toward the former view:
“My guess is that Mehalba, Halabi, Yee, and possibly others involved in spying or giving aid and comfort to the enemy were under tight surveillance from day one. They are being rounded up because their usefulness in place had ended.”
On reflection, I am inclined to agree. The concern about disloyal Arabic translators is principally–although, admittedly, not exclusively–that they may mistranslate. In theory, they could disrupt our anti-terror activities by wrongly reporting the information given by detainees. If they did this in a coordinated way, they could, perhaps, throw our forces off the scent of al Qaeda’s real activities.
The problem with this theory is that all interrogations at Guantanamo are taped. It is inconceivable that the authorities there do not check on translators’ work by having other translators listen to tapes and review translations. It occurs to me that at this moment, I am supervising a translation project in which a group of Japanese speakers is translating a large number of Japanese documents. As a routine matter, I have translators cross-check one another’s work. When a translator is found to be making errors, he is let go. If such quality control is second nature in a non-critical (to put it mildly) context like mine, it is not possible that similar, and far more rigorous, controls are not in place at Guantanamo Bay.
So, while disloyal translators and chaplains could cause damage by relating to al Qaeda, Syria et al. information about who is held at Guantanamo and so on, I think it is not possible that they could deflect our security effort through mistranslation. I think it is far more likely–especially given what we know about Mehalba’s comic ineptitude as a spy–that the authorities have been on to the traitors for a long time and have used them to gain information about their contacts on the Middle Eastern end of the pipeline.
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