Friday, July 07, 2006

Lost in translation

One of the favourite implications of GWOT boosters with each new revelation of snooping is that technology allows greater precision in the pursuit of bad guys than in the past. More likely is that it creates greater possibilities for mistakes. We noted before one plausible hypothesis for the case of the German kidnapped in Macedonia by the CIA and tortured in Afghanistan -- that his surname, a generic reference to Egyptian heritage, is shared by many bad guys, including incidentally the successor to al-Zarqawi.

Anyway, another linguistic screwup is the turning point in a depressing story in Friday's New York Times about a previously unknown kidnap-torture victim of the GWOT: this time, it's an Algerian, Laid Saidi, spirited off the streets in Tanzania, and then via Malawi sent, most likely, to Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan. Here's when his interrogators realised they had the wrong man:

In prison, Mr. Saidi said, he was interrogated daily, sometimes twice a day, for weeks. Eventually, he said, his interrogators produced an audiotape of the conversation in which he had allegedly talked about planes.

But Mr. Saidi said he was talking about tires, not planes, that his brother-in-law planned to sell from Kenya to Tanzania. He said he was mixing English and Arabic and used the word "tirat," making "tire" plural by adding an Arabic "at" sound. Whoever was monitoring the conversation apparently understood the word as "tayarat," Arabic for planes, Mr. Saidi said.

"When I heard it, I asked the Moroccan translator if he understood what we were saying in the recording," Mr. Saidi said. After the Moroccan explained it to the interrogators, Mr. Saidi said, he was never asked about it again.

So their cool technology allowed them to listen in on the phone call, but it still required someone who actually knew improvised Arabic to figure out what was being talked about. One other twist: Saidi acknowledges that there is one dodgy thing about his time in Tanzania -- he was there on a fake Tunisian passport (due to his desire to avoid the reach of the Algerian state, then in the midst of a vicious civil war). So did the geniuses at the CIA figure this out?

Mr. Saidi said the interrogations eventually stopped. In the late spring or early summer of 2004, he said, he was flown to Tunisia, apparently because his captors thought he was Tunisian. But when Arabic-speaking men boarded the plane, he said he told them he was from Algeria and that his Tunisian passport was fake.

Tunisia and Algeria eventually sorted the mess out, and he's now a free man in Algeria -- and in touch with one of his Afghan prison mates, the unfortunately named German. Most likely, this is one of the topics that the glorious Washington press corps will not trouble Bush with during his news conference later today in Chicago.

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