November 14, 2007

Linguistics at Guantanamo Bay

The Standard Operating Procedures manual for Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay has been leaked. You can download it (238 page pdf document) here. (Feel free: it isn't classified - just "for official use only".) Most of it is rather dull stuff about procedures and schedules and who is responsible for what. In my quick pass through it the only thing that stuck out was the discussion of procedures for giving access to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which mentions that the ICRC is to be denied access to some prisoners. That's disturbing, and I believe, illegal. The linguistic part is Chapter 15 "Linguist Operations".

Now before you get all excited and start speculating that some senior person in the Bush Administration has a deep, secret interest in Iranian dialects, remember that in military-speak a "linguist" is an interpreter or translator. At Guantanamo Bay the "linguists" interpret for the interrogators, guards, and other staff, and they translate the letters received by and written by the prisoners so that they can be reviewed and censored. They are also given permission (unlike most other personnel) to loiter in the cell blocks so as to gauge the level of tension among the prisoners and pick up on anything of intelligence interest. They also have the responsibility for vetting the publications in the library made available to prisoners (nothing is permitted that promotes jihad or anti-American, anti-Western, or anti-Semitic views and nothing on a military or sexual topic).

The document lists the languages for which translation is available locally: Arabic, Pashtu, French, Farsi, Urdu, Tajik, Uzbek, Uighur, Russian, Turkish, Spanish, and German, and those that have to be handled off-site: Bengali, Divehi, and Kurdish. I can see outsourcing the translation of mail and vetting of library books, but how do they communicate with prisoners who speak only Bengali, Divehi, or Kurdish? It is probably safe to assume that anyone who speaks Kurdish also speaks Arabic, Turkish, or Farsi, but I'm not sure that such an assumption can safely be made for Bengali. My impression is that younger Bangladeshis do not necessarily speak Urdu.

I'm also curious about some of the languages. Most of them are obvious: they are the languages spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan and in other Muslim countries from which al-Qaeda members are likely to come. Russian is presumably for Chechens. They probably don't have any Chechen linguists, and Chechens can be assumed to know Russian. Spanish could be for talking to the Cubans across the fence. But why do they need French and German? French, for example, is spoken by many people in North Africa, but I would think that any North Africans likely to be at Guantanamo Bay would also speak Arabic and probably prefer it to French. A guess is that some of the prisoners are Arabs brought up in France or Turks brought up in Germany, who are not literate in Arabic or Turkish respectively.

Posted by Bill Poser at November 14, 2007 06:15 PM