Army Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency, told Congress recently that the NSA is struggling to deal with a large volume of foreign language intercepts on terrorism.
Gen. Alexander said there is a backlog of untranslated electronic intelligence leads on terrorists that has grown since 2001.
“Unfortunately, it is a very labor intensive exercise to sift through large volumes of foreign language data and painstakingly attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff,” he said in written answers to questions from senators.
“This dilemma is compounded by the fact that the target set has expanded exponentially since 2001 in terms of geographic reach and languages used,” he said. “Today’s backlog is no longer confined to Arabic and its multiple dialects, but also includes a variety of other less commonly taught languages, where linguists eligible for security clearances are in short supply.”
Gen. Alexander said spying on “vague and fragmentary” terrorist communications is only one step in foiling attacks. “It is more likely that a combination of intelligence sources will be necessary to prevent a terrorist attack,” he said, warning that al Qaeda is still plotting “catastrophic” attacks.
“What [signals intelligence] can do is work hand-in-glove with other intelligence agencies, the military and law enforcement to enable key takedowns, so that the details of a plot can be uncovered through interrogation and forensics exploitation,” he said.
“That being said, the translation backlog can prevent the timely delivery of key information to NSA’s customers and stall development efforts against new targets.”
NSA currently is hiring linguists capable of translating “GWOT languages,” he said, using the Pentagon acronym for the global war on terrorism.