The chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee that investigates the military told ABC News he is deeply concerned by recent allegations that Army units have been saddled with unskilled foreign language translators in Afghanistan.
"This issue of language skills is a very, very significant one," said Rep. Victor F. Snyder, an Arkansas Democrat who chairs the subcommittee on oversight and investigations. "The Army is taking it seriously. Our committee is taking it seriously. We're going to follow up on this."
The most serious allegations surfaced in a lawsuit filed against Mission Essential Personnel, the chief supplier of interpreters into the Afghan war zone. The suit, filed by a former employee, alleges that the company was giving passing grades on language exams to applicants who failed meet the Army's proficiency standards. As a result, the suit says, the company shipped unqualified linguists overseas to be embedded with American troops.
"I determined that someone -- and I didn't know [who] at that time -- was changing the grades from blanks or zeros to passing grades," said Paul Funk, who used to oversee the screening of Afghan linguists for the Columbus, Ohio-based contractor. "Many who failed were marked as being passed."
After being asked about Funk's claims, U.S. Army officials confirmed to ABC News they are investigating the company in connection with the allegations raised in the lawsuit.
Officials at Mission Essential Personnel have strongly disputed Funk's allegations. Marc Peltier, MEP's chief operating officer, said in an interview with ABC News that he had "no reports from the field" of translators who could not communicate in Dari or Pashto. He said the company has received "100 percent outstanding" ratings from the Army and shared a copy of what he said was an internal company survey that showed 82 percent of its customers were satisfied with the performance of its translators.
In a letter to ABC News, CEO Chris Taylor said the company was founded to provide U.S. troops with "the highest level of assistance possible" and "has not just lived up to its goals, but in working with our troops in the field, represents a genuine success."
Taylor also described Funk as disgruntled ex-employee who had threatened to "wage war on the company" after he was dismissed.
Whistleblowers who file such suits stand to collect a portion of any monetary judgment, should the legal action succeed.
Funk was asked about the company's questions about his motives by the website TPM, and he dismissed them. "They tried to smear me at the very end, and I had nothing to do with any of the problems that they might have said or accused me of," he said, speaking by phone from Iraq, where he is now working for a different contractor.
Funk told the website there remain translators "who are going out there faking their translation and ruining mission after mission after mission," but added that he hoped the recent national exposure would force changes in the way translators are vetted.
The language proficiency of translators has been a concern among some American soldiers and policy makers dating back well before Mission Essential Personnel came on the scene. The challenges for the contractors have been significant – they are tasked with finding increasing numbers of U.S. citizens who speak languages such as Pashto and Dari.