“Interpreters work best when they’re unnoticed, when you do your job so well no one knows you’re there,” explained Berkeley resident Fred Burks.
But Burks did get noticed—and that’s why he no longer translates for George W. Bush or the State Department.
His problems with the feds began last October during the heat of last year’s presidential campaign, when Burks sent out an e-mail endorsing the idea, then cascading through the Internet, that George W. Bush had worn a secret listening device during that autumn’s presidential debates with John Kerry.
What led Burks to that conclusion was Bush’s own performance in White House discussions with then-Indonesian Prime Minister Megawati Sukarnoputri on Sept. 19, 2001, eight days after 9/11.
“He talked so deeply and intelligently about Indonesia and he had no notes,” Burks said. “I concluded that either he’s brilliant, or he had some kind of listening device. After talking with colleagues, we assumed it had to be a listening device.”
Yet in other meetings with his advisors present, Bush occasionally floundered. “He would turn to his advisors and say, ‘I don’t know what to say. Tell me what to say.’ And they’d tell him what to say.”
When Internet reports containing photographs of Bush apparently wearing something odd on his back during the presidential debates surfaced, Burks sent an e-mail to the blogmeister Bob Fertik at democrats.com endorsing the listening device theory.
“Things really accelerated then,” Burks said.
In retrospect, he acknowledges that sending the e-mail was ethically questionable, but said most of the blame rests with the State Department, which had never bothered to demand a signed confidentiality oath from him.
“It’s an example of government foolishness,” said the 47-year-old bachelor who shares a home with a young family near the North Berkeley BART station. “Most of government is a huge, inefficient bureaucracy. That’s why there was no confidentiality agreement. It sort of slipped through the cracks.”
Burks said, “Back in 2000 they sent out a single-sheet secrecy clause, but with no due date to sign it. It was way too restrictive, and barred us from discussing anything we saw or heard for the rest of our lives unless we obtained the appropriate approval. I didn’t sign because I won’t sign anything I know I’m going to violate.”
After Burks sent his e-mail, the State Department mailed out new contracts to replace the previous version, and this one included the same mandatory secrecy clause he had refused to sign separately four years before.
“I called up my supervisor and said there was going to be a problem,” he said.
Threatened with the possibility of termination because of his e-mail, Burks talked to a former supervisor, then concluded it was time for him to resign. A little more thinking, and Burks decided he didn’t want to quit.
A sympathetic supervisor tried to work out a way he could continue as before on a case-by-case basis or through a purchase agreement. But then came an e-mail from on high demanding he sign the secrecy clause in any event. Burks quit instead.
“Once I resigned,” he said, “I felt free.”
That’s when the press began taking real notice of the maverick interpreter who showed no reluctance in spilling the beans. The Washington Post took notice on Dec. 9, and other papers followed.
The ramifications of his revelations took on international significance when he was asked to testify in the Indonesian trial of Abu Bakir Bashir, an Islamic cleric the White House accused of masterminding the Oct. 12, 2002 terrorist bombing of a nightclub on the island of Bali that killed 202, and one Aug. 5, 2003 of the Marriott Hotel in downtown Jakarta that killed 12.
The Bali attack occurred on the second anniversary of the al Qaeda attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen that killed 17 sailors and the terrorists who rammed an explosives-laden small craft onto the warship.
Burks described a secret meeting between Megawati, U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Ralph Boyce and Karen Brooks. Burks said Brooks was a CIA officer who was introduced to Megawati as a special assistant to the president. Accordng to Burks, the Americans told the Indonesian leader that her position would be endangered if she failed to hand over Bashir in secret.
Washington charges that Bashir is the head of Jemaah Islamiyah, a radical Islamic group linked to al Qaeda, though “most Indonesians don’t even think the group exists,” said Burks.
Megawati refused the request, he testified, on the grounds that the cleric was too popular with the Indonesian public. Another cleric vouched for Burks’ account, saying he too had been pressured by Boyce in March, 2004, to urge Indonesian security officers to keep Bashir in prison when his sentence expired.
Though Megawati declined to surrender the cleric to the Americans, the Indonesian government put him on trial the next year on charges of directing a terrorist organization, ending in a victory for the 68-year-old cleric. He was, however, found guilty of immigration violations and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
On his release from prison, Bashir was promptly rearrested and charged with masterminding the two bombings.
Burks agreed to testify for the defense, and when he arrived in Indonesia in February, he found he had become a celebrity, followed everywhere by the press and the occasional autograph-hunter.
“I was treated like a rock star, which was fine for the week that I was there, but enough to make me glad when things reverted back to normal,” he said.
When the court rendered its findings on March 3, Bashir was cleared of involvement in the Jakarta bombing but convicted of conspiracy in the Bali blast. The 30-month sentence, less credit for 10 months served while awaiting trial, provoked outrage from Washington and Canberra, capital of the nation which had lost 82 civilians in the bombing.
Burks said he enjoyed translating for leading officials, a job he started in 1995 after working as a State Department interpreter since 1986. He initially worked with the International Business Program which targeted people in their 30s and 40s who had been identified as potential leaders.
“They bring them here for a month and they get to see whatever they wanted to see. The only thing I didn’t like about it was that I had to wear a suit and tie,” he said.
The program has proven highly successful, and more than 150 of those targeted later went on to serve as leaders of their nations, including Anwar Sadat and Margaret Thatcher.
Then in 1995 he got a call asking if he could go to Copenhagen that weekend and interpret for Al Gore at the U.N. Summit for Social Development. Burks was then summoned to the White House seven months later to interpret at a meeting between Suharto, Gore and President Bill Clinton.
“Clinton was a whole other story,” Burks said. “”Everyone in the White House adored him. Bush was pretty friendly too, but it was more of a good ol’ boy thing.”
Still, he said, “I was very impressed by Bush. I don’t like his politics, but he’s very personable, and as a person, he’s really nice. As an interpreter, you judge people by the way they treat you, and when I worked with him in person, he’d always look me in the eye and say, ‘You did a really good job.”
Both men, he said, were driven by advisors. “Whoever controls the advisors controls the president,” he said.
One of his more interesting lessons in Realpolitik came not during an interpreting session but before, when the White House Situation Room called in advance of a phone call between Megawati and Bush in 2003.
“They had scheduled it for 15 minutes, and I asked if that would be enough time,” Burks said. “They told me they could guarantee it wouldn’t be over 15 minutes because Bush was scheduled to talk to a high Saudi Arabian official, and they don’t wait for anyone.
“I thought, ‘Interesting. That really tells where the power lies.’”
Burks is anything but conventional, which has made it easier for his State Department and White House critics. His beliefs have a strong New Age slant, and he’s an outspoken believer in UFOs.
While a student at UC Santa Cruz, he took part in a program that placed students in overseas families to learn about different cultures. He learned Indonesian when he was sent there to live with an Islamic extended family of 20. He learned Chinese when he was sent to China by the same program on a teaching assignment.
Trained as a nurse, he worked for 10 years with Alta Bates Herrick Hospital, doing both general and psychiatric nursing. Now jobless, he devotes his energies to three web sites, most notably wanttoknow.info, a collaborative site that features alternative perspective on international politics.
“We recently reached the half-million visitor mark,” he said, “and we’ve had over a million page views.”?