All your base are belong to us
Wired has an article expressing alarm at the ability of Chinese intelligence to "turn" an outsourced translation service in Hawaii. Bill Gertz, who did the original reporting for the Washington Times said:
China's intelligence service gained access to a secret National Security Agency listening post in Hawaii through a Chinese-language translation service, according to U.S. intelligence officials. ... According to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity, China's Ministry of State Security, the main civilian spy service, carried out the operations by setting up a Chinese translation service in Hawaii that represented itself as a U.S.-origin company.
Naval intelligence officials familiar with the Chinese spy penetration said the access to both "raw" and analyzed intelligence at Kunia caused significant damage by giving China's government details on both the targets and the sources of U.S. spying operations. Such information would permit the Chinese to block the eavesdropping or to provide false and misleading "disinformation" to U.S. intelligence.
In 2002, right after the September 11 attacks, the Legislative branch found US translation and analysis capabilities to be woefully inadequate because of 1990s cutbacks.
Hayden says NSA simply could not afford to keep them. The agency "already [had] squeezed the retraining limit dry" after 1990s cutbacks, he adds. ... he report accompanying the 2002 House Intelligence Authorization Act found that due to the dearth of analysts and linguists, NSA collected thousands of pieces of data, including electronic intercepts from terrorist organizations, but either failed to analyze them, or held them too long. Lawmakers are allowing NSA to expand for the first time since the 1980s. The agency hired 820 new workers in 2002; 1,125 in 2003; and will hire 1,500 this year. Hayden says nearly 20 percent of the civilian employees have been hired since 2000, either as replacements for retirees, or as part of the post-Sept.11 expansion.
NSA especially seeks linguists and plans to hire 150 to 200 this year. "We wish we could hire more. We're a monolingual society, that's the challenge," says Hayden. At the end of 2001, the agency had about 11,000 linguists (4,000 civilian and 7,000 military), who could translate 115 languages. Despite having government's largest translator workforce, NSA is a "long way from where it needs to be," Hayden says. Too few speak what he terms "global war on terrorism dialects," such as Arabic, the Pashto and Dari dialects of Afghanistan, and languages from the Philippines and Indonesia.
No mention of Chinese.
But NSA needs more than just translation. "We must understand not only the words, but also the intention behind the words," William Black, NSA's deputy director, told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in November 2003. To encourage linguists to become more skilled and to retain them, NSA has tripled bonus pay.
Heightened priorities probably meant that internal recruitment was insufficient to meet the need and had to be outsourced. We may never know the full details of the penetration of the NSA's translation contractor. But it's something to think about.