WASHINGTON -- The FBI's backlog of untranslated audio recordings from terrorism and espionage investigations grew markedly in the past year, the Justice Department's internal watchdog said Wednesday.
The FBI is capturing and reviewing more conversations than ever in languages associated with terrorists, inspector general Glenn A. Fine said in a report.
"The FBI's collection of audio material continues to outpace its ability to review and translate all that material," Fine said. His findings were similar in a July 2004 audit, except that he said the FBI now does a better job prioritizing its translation work.
Fine released his report at an FBI oversight hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
There were 707,742 hours of unreviewed recordings at the end of March, a 50 percent increase over the start of 2004, Fine said. The bureau no longer is running behind on intercepts relating to al-Qaida cases.
The FBI said those backlogged recordings include hundreds of thousands of hours of white noise and other unintelligible audio, conversations in closed cases and mistakenly captured exchanges. But even by its own measure, the FBI's counterterrorism audio backlog more than doubled, Fine said.
FBI Director Robert Mueller, testifying at the same hearing, said much of the backlog is in obscure languages for which translators are hard to find. He told senators that the bureau is able "to promptly address all of our highest priority counterterrorism intelligence, generally within 24 hours."
On a different topic, Mueller was unusually specific in describing a case to illustrate the need for administrative subpoena power, a provision of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act that is up for renewal.
It allows law enforcement to subpoena records without permission from a judge or grand jury.
At a time when authorities were scrambling to pursue leads on the men who set off bombs in the London mass transit system on July 7, it took the FBI two days to obtain records from an American university on a one-time chemistry student who may have had ties to the four attackers, Mueller said.
While Mueller did not use any names, the situation he described is similar to the case of Magdy el-Nashar, an Egyptian-born academic who recently taught chemistry at Leeds University. He is believed to have rented one of the homes authorities searched in Leeds, where some of the attackers lived.
El-Nashar studied chemical engineering at North Carolina State University in 2000.
"The person had expertise in chemistry that would enable the person to construct the bombs," Mueller said. But when the FBI first approached the university, officials declined to turn over records.
"We had to go back with a grand jury subpoena. Now in my mind we should not in that circumstance ... have to show somebody that this was an emergency," he said.
North Carolina State officials did not immediately comment.
El-Nashar was detained in Egypt. But after several days of questioning, the Egyptian government said he had no links to the attacks or to al-Qaida.
His example did not persuade Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who said there would not be sufficient checks on the FBI if it could issue subpoenas in intelligence cases on its own.
On the Net:
Justice Department inspector general: http://www.usdoj.gov/oig