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Fears of guantanamo mistranslations { October 7 2003 }

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October 7, 2003
Fear of Sabotage by Mistranslation at Guantánamo

wASHINGTON, Oct. 6 — American interpreters at the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, who are under suspicion of espionage may have sabotaged interviews with detainees by inaccurately translating interrogators' questions and prisoners' answers, senior American officials said on Monday.

It is unclear in how many cases, if any, this may have happened, the officials said. But military investigators are taking the issue seriously enough to review taped interrogations involving the Arabic-language interpreters under scrutiny to spot-check their accuracy.

If the investigators' worst fears are realized, officials said, scores of interviews with suspected Qaeda or Taliban prisoners at the Cuban detention center could be compromised, and military officials could be forced to reinterview many of the camp's 680 detainees.

"There are enough suggestions that give us cause to compare the audiotapes with the translations," said one senior American official familiar with the inquiry. The official declined to say what those suggestions were, and other senior American officials similarly refused to cite any specific evidence of deliberate mistranslation by the interpreters.

The concerns about the reliability of some of the camp's 70 military and civilian linguists only add to the growing mystery surrounding the motives and objectives of as many as 10 people who worked at the camp, had contact with the prisoners and now are under suspicion in the widening inquiry, military officials said.

Pentagon officials are saying very little publicly about the cases, in part because they are still baffled about whether there was a conspiracy to infiltrate the camp, and in part because of the nature of the investigation, a sensitive matter involving military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Top defense officials have yet to explain publicly what any of the accused spies might have been trying to achieve at Guantánamo Bay, a heavily guarded camp on an American naval base.

The most serious charges have been leveled against an Air Force interpreter, Senior Airman Ahmad I. al-Halabi, 24, who is accused of committing espionage by trying to deliver information to Syria, including 180 messages from prisoners, many of their names, and flight schedules in and out of the camp.

Military officials have privately suggested a range of theories, including the possibility that the interpreters sabotaged the interrogations. This theory was first reported by CNN on Saturday.

One senior Air Force official said Monday that terrorists who might gain inside information from American confederates at the camp could have been trying to disrupt flights to and from the base. Another official said that terrorist leaders, by learning from the confederates which prisoners were in custody and what they were telling American interrogators, could try to mitigate the damage to their operations.

On one level, each branch of the military is investigating the espionage-related accusations against members of its own service. But a senior defense official said these inquiries were being coordinated as part of a broader investigation involving numerous government agencies that he would not discuss in detail.

"The worst fear is that it's all one interrelated network that was inspired by Al Qaeda," said a senior Air Force official. "But we don't have any concrete evidence of that yet."

There are also tantalizing clues that the military knows much more about at least some of the suspects than it is letting on. For instance, court documents filed in Airman al-Halabi's case show that Air Force authorities were monitoring the airman, a Syrian-born supply clerk, before he was sent to Guantánamo Bay in November 2002. But the documents do not say why he was under investigation. Most of the documents in the case are classified.

Other senior officials, including Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have also hinted that authorities at Guantánamo may know more about the suspects than they are saying.

"We had, I'll just say, things in place, counterintelligence capabilities in place to try to prevent this," General Myers told reporters on Thursday.

The growing concerns over the magnitude of potential security breaches at Guantánamo came as Pentagon officials said Monday that a Navy sailor who worked at the prison camp was questioned by naval investigators over the weekend and released. They gave no details.

That questioning brought to four the total number of people the military has interrogated in relation to possible espionage at the Cuban detention facility, but a senior military official said about 10 people altogether are under scrutiny.

So far, three men — an Army chaplain and two Arabic-language interpreters, including Airman al-Halabi — who worked at the base with the suspected Qaeda and Taliban prisoners have been arrested, separately. They are all being held on suspicion of espionage.

The most recent arrest happened last week in Boston, involving Ahmed Fathy Mehalba, a civilian translator, who was detained after authorities found that a compact disc he was carrying contained government documents marked "secret."

About three other people are under active surveillance, including the sailor questioned over the weekend and an Air Force service member who was a linguist at the base, two defense officials said. There are about three or four other people who may have had close contacts with the other six, said one of the officials who declined to described them further.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other senior Pentagon officials have in recent days sought to give the impression that the military is on top the investigation.

"Historically we know that when you are in a war and you have enemies, that they are going to seek to find ways to advantage themselves and disadvantage you," Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters last Thursday. "It's been so throughout history."

Mr. Rumsfeld also defended the commander of the military interrogation center at the Cuban detainee camp, Maj. Gen. Geoff Miller of the Army.

Privately, however, military officials voice deeper concerns about the scope of any possible spy penetration at the prison camp, and the ultimate goal of any conspiracy. A team of investigators from the United States Southern Command in Miami arrived at the camp last week to review security procedures.

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