The Republican heads of the two congressional intelligence committees urged the government Friday to let the public help translate a massive backlog of documents captured in counterterrorism operations.
U.S. and allied forces have seized millions of pages of documents, computer disks and other materials since Washington's declared war on terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which officials say are a potential treasure trove of information.
But since only people with special security clearances are authorized to sift through the documents, many of which are not secret, translation and analysis "will take decades, if ever, to complete," said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts and House of Representatives Intelligence Committee Chairman Pete Hoekstra.
The Pentagon, CIA and other agencies have often bemoaned a shortage of linguists in Arabic and other Middle Eastern and Asian languages and said there was a huge backlog of material obtained by military and police operations, satellites, bugging and spies that needed translation.
Memories are still fresh of two messages intercepted from suspected members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network on Sept. 10, 2001, that said, "Tomorrow is zero hour," and "The match begins tomorrow." They were translated on Sept. 11 and given to policy-makers only on Sept. 12.
"The sheer volume of materials that we have obtained is overwhelming our intelligence community's ability to properly categorize and translate the contents, analyze and review the information, verify authenticity and report to users the knowledge generated," Roberts and Hoekstra said in a letter to intelligence czar John Negroponte.
They said that many of the documents could be open to the general public, for example by posting them on the Internet. At the very least, they said, linguists in the public could help triage the information so intelligence officials could focus on the most vital data.
"I would like to get these documents into the public domain in hopes that academics, journalists, bloggers and other interested people can help clear this backlog. In the end, I think the government, and the public, will benefit from having all these documents translated," said Hoekstra, from Michigan.
"I believe this is a far better plan than the continued slow translation of documents, which may leave many of these documents unread for decades," he said in a news release.
The lawmakers said the process should ensure that sources and intelligence procurement methods are protected, and involve U.S. allies in control of some of the documents.
The government has exerted substantial efforts to hire more experts in languages relevant to the fight against terrorism, but a limited pool of qualified applicants, difficulties in obtaining security clearances and stiff recruitment competition from the private sector have undermined the process.