WASHINGTON — The FBI is still not reviewing reams of evidence collected in counterterrorism cases, and has fewer translators than it did a few years ago, an internal government watchdog said Monday.
Glenn Fine, the Justice Department's inspector general, issued a report Monday finding flaws in the FBI's translation and evidence review efforts. FBI officials responded by saying the inspector general overstated the problem by double-counting wiretap recordings that are shared with more than one bureau office.
The 131-page report says that since 2003, the FBI has not reviewed about 47,000 hours of audio files in counterterrorism cases - the equivalent of a single recording running for five and a half years straight. The bureau says the real backlog is only about a tenth of that, or 4,770 hours - 200 days worth.
In the most recent budget year, some 740 hours of recordings were not reviewed in the most important counterterrorism cases, the report said. FBI officials said the actual number is about 223 hours.
"Not reviewing such material increases the risk that the FBI will not detect information in its possession that may be important to its counterterrorism and counterintelligence efforts," the report said.
Overall, the FBI did not review about 25 percent of the recordings it made for counterintelligence work, auditors found. The bureau reviewed virtually all of the wiretap evidence gathered in criminal cases, according to the report.
There are more than 1 million hours of audio in counterintelligence cases still awaiting review, the report said. That's the equivalent of more than 100 years of continuous recording.
In a written response to the findings, FBI Deputy Director John Pistole said it would be a waste of time and resources to individually review all of the counterintelligence evidence it collects; instead, they use "advanced technology to assist in the identification" of the specific recordings that contain valuable evidence.
While the FBI disputed some of the inspector general's calculations, it said it has taken steps to implement two dozen recommendations on how to improve its translation and evidence review work.
"The FBI remains committed to reviewing all foreign language material in a timely manner and setting priorities to ensure that the most important material receives the most immediate attention," the FBI said in a statement.
Other findings in the report suggest why it may be difficult for the bureau to process all of its wiretap evidence.
Despite years of criticism for not having enough translators, the bureau actually lost translators in recent years. In late 2005, there were 1,338 linguists. A few years later there were 40 fewer.
Also, the time it takes to hire a linguist is growing, not shrinking. The current average hiring time for a linguist is 19 months, compared to 16 months in 2005.
In an odd twist, the FBI blames telemarketers for one problem cited in the report.
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The inspector general found in one instance the bureau had gathered wiretap evidence after an intelligence warrant had expired. In some cases, the bureau explained, the technology that allows them to listen to phone calls means they create a new phone number, which telemarketers can then call, creating new recordings even after a warrant has expired.