Everette Jordan, the head of the National Virtual Translation Center, testified before a Senate subcommittee on homeland security on Thursday. His testimony is here. The NVTC was created by the Patriot Act to provide translation resources to federal agencies at at a time when the need to build more foreign language expertise in the U.S. grew political legs. The shortage had existed for a long time, but not until 9/11 did the costs of the shortage become clear.
The NVTC was also an innovation. Though it’s a joint FBI/CIA project, NVTC translators can be engaged by any federal agency. It’s like a federal contractor inside the government. Agencies otherwise balk at sharing resources. The NVTC also recruited gay linguists fired by the military and found ways to keep retired experts, who take years to train, in the workforce. It also served as a magnet for technological innovation. Other agencies are bound by (among other things) legacy computer systems; the NVTC, an entirely new shop, had no such constraints. Jordan described some of the developments:
Major projects have included the Language and Technology Resource Nexus, which is a software system to facilitate secure information sharing among language professionals, and the IC Parallel Corpora Database, a joint project with the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, which will enable government agencies to store and retrieve matched sets of documents in the original language with their translations. This database will be invaluable in supporting advances in machine translation as well as providing training material for students of foreign languages.
His rest of his testimony was bland and guarded. I bet he saved the details for a closed-door session. I bet that the subcommitee also heard classified testimony from Jordan about how much work they’ve done and specific instances where NVTC work has cracked a case. In 2003, Jordan became the head of the NVTC, which I wrote about for Technology Review in 2004. He’s a former NSA linguist who became the visible face for NSA work after 9/11, though this CNN interview was broadcast in 2005, just after the NYT broke the domestic surveillance story:
ENSOR: Have you ever found yourself listening to an American, a U.S. person, on a tape?
ENSOR: And what do you do — what are the instruction — no, you never have?
JORDAN: No, I haven’t.
ENSOR: What are your instructions in the event you should find yourself listening to an American, a U.S. person on a tape?
JORDAN: We have very strict protocols towards handling that — those sorts of situations. And really, we erase the thing, but we also report that thus and such has happened.