A few weeks after Islamic terrorists toppled the World Trade Center, two FBI agents from the New York field office paid a visit to a Sephardic Jewish community center in Brooklyn. Their mission: recruit Arabic linguists to help interpret interviews and intercepts of Osama bin Laden's network.
Sephardic Jews have lived in Arab countries and know the language, not to mention the culture and history of the region. And being close to Israel, the main target of Islamic terrorism, they were gung-ho to help the feds fight the war on terrorism here.
It was a good move, or so most involved thought at the time -- and long overdue.
Federal investigators had missed clues to both the 2001 and 1993 World Trade Center attacks not because they didn't have them, but because they didn't know what they had until it was too late. They were buried in a backlog of untranslated wiretaps and documents in Arabic.
A chronic shortage of Arabic-speaking translators had resulted in an accumulation of thousands of hours of untranslated audiotapes and written material stored in FBI lockers.
The FBI's New York field office, at least, knew such delays were no longer acceptable after the 9-11 attack. The bureau's translators were the key to preventing another homeland strike, but they had to convert Arabic chatter to English faster. That meant hiring a lot more translators as quickly as possible.
So in October 2001, while rescue workers were still pulling remains from Ground Zero, two agents from the FBI's offices located nearby reached out to local Arabic-speaking Jews to do just that. Agents Carol Motyka and Marsha Parrish met with an official at the Sephardic Bikur Holim, a Jewish social-services agency in Brooklyn.
At the meeting, Yola Haber, who heads the agency's employment division, says she agreed to help recruit Arabic-speaking Jews for the bureau. Most of them applied on-line for the translator jobs. All told, she says she referred some 90 applicants, possibly more, to the FBI. They included retired linguists who had experience working for Israeli radio in Arabic and for the Israeli army.
Remarkably, not one of them was hired.
"We sent them a lot of people, and nobody made it to the finish line," complained Sephardic Bikur Holim director Doug Balin. "Not one person was found eligible for these jobs, which is outrageous."
Instead, the FBI hired dozens of Arab-American Muslims as translators.
The double standard doesn't sit well with Jewish leaders, who note that Muslim translators hired by the Pentagon to assist in al-Qaida interrogations are under investigation for espionage. And there have been reports of loyalty issues involving Muslim translators at the FBI.
Prominent Jewish members of Congress are demanding answers.
House Democratic Whip Anthony Weiner of New York has asked FBI Director Robert Mueller to explain, on a case-by-case basis, the reasons for rejecting the Jewish applicants.
"In an attempt to understand why it is that none of the applicants brought to the bureau by Sephardic Bikur Holim were approved for employment, and to ensure that no bias or discrimination exists within the bureau, I request that you provide us with an explanation," Weiner said in a Nov. 13 letter to Mueller, co-signed by Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J. Weiner is also a House Judiciary Committee member.
At the same time, Jewish leaders in New York have sent House Government Reform Committee investigators a long list of Sephardic Jews who speak fluent Arabic in an effort to compel the FBI to reconsider Jews for the desperately needed translator jobs.
One leader said that the chief of the FBI's language section, Margaret Gullota, recently reached out to leaders in the Sephardic community and privately assured them she would reconsider Jewish applicants. A spokeswoman for Gullota did not return phone calls. Gullota has told congressional leaders that the FBI has done a good job of recruiting Arabic-speaking translators after 9-11.
On the record, the FBI explains that the qualification process is rigorous, involving a battery of language proficiency tests, a polygraph exam and a 10-year scope background investigation -- all handled through headquarters in Washington. The Jewish applicants from New York just didn't make the cut, officials say.
Off the record, however, the bureau says there were loyalty concerns. Many of the applicants are dual citizens, and were rejected after failing to renounce their Israeli citizenship. The Jonathan Pollard spy case has heightened security fears. Translators require Top Secret clearance.
But Caroline Glick, deputy managing editor of the Jerusalem Post, is mystified.
"There is no reason to worry about the so-called dual loyalties of Sephardic American Jews," she argued in a recent article, "These loyalties are not in conflict. They are identical."
Others familiar with the FBI's foreign language program say the reason the FBI snubbed the Jewish
applicants has more to do with politics than security. They say headquarters didn't want to offend Muslim translators, who would have to work alongside Jews.
"There's already tension between the Hebrew and Arabic desks," an FBI source said. "If they hired Arab Jews to translate Arabic, there would be bloodshed. Arabs would never accept it."
Glick notes that Mueller has pandered to Muslim groups, even ones that support Hamas and other
terrorist groups. He's also mandated Muslim-sensitivity training for agents.
"In people such as the Sephardic Arabic speakers whose applications were apparently rejected by the FBI, the U.S. has a valuable store of capital for its war on terror," Glick said. "Better it be used than squandered for the sake of pandering to radical Arab groups."
Shelomo Alfassa, vice president of the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture in New York, agrees.
"Imagine if during the war against Hitler, Franklin D. Roosevelt felt that having Jews fight the Nazis might upset the everyday German?" he said.