Accused Syrian Spy Says Feds Botched Interpretation, Used Google Translate


Late update: A federal judge ruled Soueid should be detained.

Federal authorities botched a translation of a conversation between accused Syrian spy Mohamad Anas Haitham Soueid and his wife and even used Google Translate for some interpretations, his lawyers claimed in a court filing.

Lawyer Haytham Faraj said the government “is attempting to peddle an argument about aliases intended to make Mr. Soueid appear to be deceptive, dangerous and a flight risk.” The U.S. government, Faraj continued, “has demonstrated a serious deficit in its ability to translate recorded conversations from Arabic into English.”

“Mr. Soueid’s name in Arabic is spelled and written as so: ‘سويد هيثم أنس محمد’ It is read from right to left. The script representing the Arabic name above was prepared using Google translator by simply typing the words Mohamad Anas Haitham Soueid,” Faraj wrote.Federal prosecutors wanted to keep Soueid in custody, accusing him of researching those protesting against the Syrian government in an attempt to keep them quiet and possibly intimidate or harm them. A judge ordered him released but the motion was stayed pending review.

DOJ says that Soueid is a danger to himself and the community, and accused him of writing a letter to an overseas unindicted co-conspirator stating that “violence against protestors was justified, raiding of homes of protestors was justified, and that any method should be used to deal with protestors.”

The feds say that Soueid initially denied meeting with any Syrian government officials when he was interviewed in August but subsequently admitted — as shown in the photo above — that he met with President Assad.

Faraj argued that the government translator “appears to have taken extensive liberties with a playful conversation between a husband and wife and twisted it into a sinister warning that has no basis in fact.”

He cites a government transcript of a conversation between Soueid and his wife which has Soueid saying “God Damn you – you – I will deal with you later” when Faraj says that “only the word ‘you’ was uttered in that statement” and that the rest “is a fabrication.” Faraj continues:

Within the same paragraph, the translator takes even graver liberties with the truth. The translator writes “you are talking to me over the phone- and this phone belongs to Intelligence agency – I am not supposed to be talking on it.” The translator missed a clear announcement of the words “over there,” the non possessive “telephone” and then “the intelligence service/agency” rather than “this phone belongs to the Intelligence Agency.” To a listener fluent in Arabic, the speaker clearly indicates that he was not free to speak on the telephone because the intelligence service monitors phone calls. And that statement fits contextually within the tone, volume, and playfulness of the back and forth dialogue between husband and wife who defiantly and jokily states “Me, the intelligence service knows me…I..I am not afraid of the intelligence service.” Anyone aware of Syrian language, culture and life in Syria understands that Syrians constantly assume their calls are being monitored. Syrian culture is rife with humor about the Mukhabarat listening in on conversations. Such cultural aspects of Syrian life are commonly known and should be understood by anyone undertaking to translate a Syrian dialect conversation into English. The errors and fabrications in the Government translation are troubling, twist the meaning and portray a conversation that is disconnected from reality.

That’s not just Faraj’s opinion, though he is a fluent Arabic speaker. He also claims to have brought in two other translators who “are Ph.D. students in the Arabic studies program at Georgetown University and both also work as Arabic language Teacher Assistants in the Arabic studies program.”

Government agencies like the FBI have struggled with a shortage of Arabic translators in the years since Sept. 11. A Justice Department Inspector General report from Oct. 2009 found that the bureau has not reached its hiring goals, takes 19 months to hire a contract linguist and that that the number of linguists performing translations for the bureau went down from 1,388 in March 2005 to 1,298 in Sept. 2008. The FBI does not comment about ongoing investigations, and federal prosecutors have yet to file a reply to Faraj’s motion in court.