One can find detailed background on U.S. military use of contractor linguists in this Defense Industry Daily round‐up .
All that said, there are several reasons to be skeptical of Funk’s claims
Why should people doubt the ABC story? First, consider the source. ABC News, in recent years has not had a good record when it comes to breaking investigative stories. Brian Ross, in particular, has been wrong on multiple stories, as this Salon article recently detailed.
In 2007, Ross ran an exclusive interview with former CIA officer Jon Kiriakou about, among other things, the efficacy of water‐boarding. That story, hyped uncritically by ABC, was picked up in other media and informed the public debate about water‐boarding for years — until, of course, it turned out to be bogus.
Last November, Ross reported that the Fort Hood shooter, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, had attempted to make contact with “people” associated with al‐Qaeda. That turned out to be not true.
In December, he reported that a released GuantÃ¡namo detainee was a mastermind of the attempted Christmas Day bombing. As it turned out, the detainee in question had actually been in the hands of Saudi authorities for months and had no role in the plot. That didn’t stop myriad media outlets from picking up the inaccurate story.
Given his recent record if Ross were Treasury Secretary the country would be in a full‐blown depression.
Second, the way ABC dealt with MEP when getting its side of the story smacks of a setup. Keep in mind the timeline. ABC’s story ran Sep. 8. But it did not contact MEP until Sep. 1 and then only to say they were doing a story on translators without providing any specifics. It was not until the next day they asked about the allegations made by Funk. MEP officials asked for a meeting so they could rebut the allegations but they did not meet with ABC News until Sep. 7, the day before the piece ran. That smacks more of gotcha accusations, rather than serious journalism. Having done some writing for television myself in the past I know that if one is sure of one’s facts one does not do an interview with a company one suspects of wrongdoing less than a week before your story airs.
Even so, according to a statement MEP released, “Prior to airing this erroneous story, MEP provided ABC extensive information on the record — both in‐person and in writing. With willful disregard, ABC chose to ignore the facts, doing a grave disservice to the public, and to many good people in the field.”
Third, and fairly important, Charles Miller, a Justice Department spokesman, who I reached by phone last Friday, said, that the Justice Department “has not joined the suit by the relator [Funk]. Now that is not to say it couldn’t do so later on. Still, if Justice thought Funk had a slam dunk case it likely would have already joined in the suit.
Fourth, a hearing is expected to take place on September 23 where a judge will consider the motion by MEP attorneys to dismiss the case. Speaking on background, sources close to Funk’s legal team acknowledge that they may have to replead their suit and add more specificity to the charges, tacitly acknowledging that they understand the motion to dismiss will likely succeed. Thus, this would mean that Funk’s lawyers are asking for a third chance to amend their complaint, after failing two times in the past.
Fifth, the ABC piece uses weak, secondary sources. ABC used a video clip depicting an interpreter doing a bad job, from the British Guardian, but that interpreter was not an MEP employee.
ABC cited several other sources to bolster the claim that MEP linguists are flawed. One source is a former military Pashto linguist who says she witnessed bad translation. But her online bio says she was wounded and sent home in 2006, the year before MEP won its Afghanistan contract. Hence, she never worked with MEP linguists.
The next source is an Afghan politician who says he has seen examples of poor Army translators. His comments are general and vague and there’s no indication he has ever worked with MEP linguists.
In its online version, ABC quotes a British journalist saying he believes unskilled translators take the jobs because they are lucrative, referring to a linguist who became “the rock star of his village.” This reference makes clear the journalist is referencing linguists who are Afghan locals, not the US‐hires discussed in the lawsuit.
Sixth, ABC seems not to understand basic contract types. ABC suggested MEP is motivated to fill positions with weak linguists because “The more they recruit, the more they make.” But MEP’s contract is cost plus award fee, meaning MEP is reimbursed for its costs. MEP’s profit comes from its award fee which is tied to its performance rating from the Army. Award fee is based on the number of qualified linguists, as well as the quality of the linguists deployed. If MEP provided poor linguists, its rating, and therefore its profitability, would decline.
Finally, in his complaint Funk says the defendants conducted Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) testing of linguist candidates over the telephone, rather than in person, which is the industry standard and the only way to prevent fraud by the person being tested. But he fails to note that this was just the first of a three prong system MEP employs, the other two being a written test and an integrity test that occurs by video conference or in person, which MEP put in, above and beyond the terms of the contract. The phone tests and written tests are catalogued and saved for review by the military.
It is worth noting that MEP’s contract with INSCOM does not actually call for doing in person interviews. Thus, at the time Funk worked for MEP translator candidates would undergo an OPI and written test. Later, after MEP instituted its integrity test, the candidate, if he passed the other two tests, would have to do an interview with a MEP employee who is a native speaker of the required language, such as Dari or Pashto.
The standards for these language tests are set by the U.S. Government and are based on the Department of Defense’s Inter‐Agency Language Roundtable (ILR) standards.
MEP’s language testing programs were audited in 2008 and 2010. Back when Funk worked at MEP the OPI and the written test were the assessment tools used. Since then, MEP added the integrity test, a final assessment, which includes an in person or video teleconference interview with a native speaker who is an MEP employee.
As noted earlier there has never been anything in MEP’s contract with INSCOM specifying the means by which it is supposed to test its interpreters. To the extent that this is a real concern government can easily solve it by specifying in its contracts the means for doing so, just as it specifies the means by which private security firms must confirm the qualifications of those they hire.
Finally, the people in the best position to judge, MEP’s client, seem satisfied with its performance. At a July 26 hearing of the Commission on Wartime Contracting, MEP CEO Chris Taylor noted MEP has received ratings of “outstanding” from the US Government for the last eight quarters.”