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The FBI translation department whistleblower talks about her case, the extraordinary gag order imposed on it--and hints at an October Surprise for the Bureau and the Bush administration
Sibel Edmonds' claims of incompetence, malfeasance, and possible espionage in the FBI's translation unit have received sporadic attention since she first aired them widely in a 60 Minutes report in October 2002--not least because of the veil of silence that the Bush Justice Department has tried to draw over the case. In July of this year, a Bush-appointed judge dismissed Edmonds' lawsuit against the FBI on the grounds that the case would necessarily expose state secrets. Judge Reggie Walton's logic parroted that of Attorney General John Ashcroft, who in May 2004 issued an order retroactively classifying all the information that had been presented to Congress in her case because of its alleged national security sensitivity.
But l'affaire Edmonds is heating up again. Last week Edmonds filed a new lawsuit seeking to compel release of the documents in her case under the Freedom of Information law. And Tuesday's page one New York Times story about the 120,000-hour backlog of untranslated intelligence tapes the FBI is presently sitting on lent additional credence to her charges. (Some al Qaeda communiques, the Times reported, were automatically deleted by the overloaded computer system in the department before they could be translated.)
It wasn't the first time Edmonds had been featured on the front page of the Times; she was the subject of a July 29 dispatch which disclosed that the DoJ Inspector General had completed a report--classified, of course--concluding that her whistleblowing activities were a factor in her April 2002 firing, after just six months-plus of employment at the FBI.
Despite the legal walls the FBI and Bush administration have attempted to build around her case, it's nonetheless clear from letters and documents that are already irretrievably in the public realm that Edmonds' claims (give or take those of Richard Clarke) may be the most explosive yet lodged against the U.S. government's anti-terrorism work post-9/11.
Certainly she is the most dangerous whistleblower the FBI has spawned to date, because her allegations include claims that the FBI not only failed to do its job, but also knowingly employed a foreign-born translator with ties to individuals and at least one organization then under investigation. Edmonds claimed that this translator, a woman named Melek Can Dickerson, actively obstructed the translation and dissemination of communiques involving foreign associates of Dickerson's. (There's more about all this in the links appended to the bottom of the interview.)
The following conversation took place by phone on Tuesday, September 28. It will be published in the October 6 issue of City Pages.
City Pages: As I understand it, you’re currently barred from even discussing publicly the claims you made about the translation department. Is that correct?
Sibel Edmonds: Not exactly. Everybody else is barred. They have not personally barred me. However, I’m restricted because of the classification issues, because I would be liable. But in terms of official gagging, they have done that with the Congress. This happened in May 2004. They gagged the Congress by retroactively classifying everything that had to do with me and my case. For example, Congressmen can no longer even talk about what languages I spoke. They also barred the courts from processing this case, and basically had them drop the case by invoking this rarely invoked state secrets privilege. They barred the Inspector General’s office by entirely classifying their report. So far they have not allowed them to have even a small part declassified.
When you look at it, every other venue has been gagged on my issue. But I have not been officially gagged. But I’m bounded by the classification and non-disclosure issues.
CP: Your case was dismissed by a judge in July, again on the grounds of secrecy. I assume you're appealing.
Edmonds: We’re absolutely appealing that. We’ve already filed our notice of appeal. We brought that suit in July 2002, and the judge did not hold any hearings, no oral arguments, no discovery. And then, in a hasty manner in June 2004, he dismissed it based on the state secrets privilege the government asserted. The reason it was hasty was that the victims of 9/11 family members have an attorney who wanted to subpoena me as a key witness. The judge had to rule quickly so that they wouldn’t subpoena my deposition.
We are appealing that, and we believe ultimately it’s going to wind up in front of the Supreme Court.
CP: Has your attorney given you any indication of how long this battle may go on?
Edmonds: Well, July 2002 we filed it, and it took this judge--with no hearings, no activity--two years to rule against it. Now, with the appeals court, it should be faster than that. However, as we know, the government tries all sorts of way to stall this whole thing, by asking for extensions, etc. However, considering these latest developments, and more developments that are going to occur this month, in October, I believe they are going to have a hard time dragging out this appeal thing. Either they have to rule against it or actually overturn this judge’s decision. So I’m optimistic with this new lawsuit and the appeal process.
CP: Are you at liberty to discuss any of the other news that will be breaking in October?
Edmonds: No, but many pieces of the various information has been out. However, the dots to this date have not been really connected. That is, the issues I reported to the Inspector General’s office in the Department of Justice, and also to the 9/11 Commission and to Congress, can be classified in three different categories. One had to do with intentional blocking of translations by certain translators for various reasons. The other had to do with just pure incompetence. Certain translators were hired through back doors, even though these individuals failed proficiency exams or background security checks. And the third, most important issue had to do with, that the state secrets privilege was invoked not to protect state secrets, but invoked—and this hopefully will be out before this election—to cover up some other issues that had nothing to do with national security or state secrets. But by intentional action, some of them criminal actions, by certain authorities here in the United States.
Again, these issues were reported, I reported them to the Congress, to the Inspector General, and the 9/11 Commission, along with evidence. [Editor's note: See below for links to the main Edmonds-related documents posted online.] And they have been sitting on it. Once this comes out, they are going to be liable, too, by not doing anything about these issues, and abiding by these gag orders, considering that the gag orders were illegal in the first place. Even the National Security Archives called it illegal. Because Ashcroft had to meet three criteria in order to retroactively classify these investigations, and he did not meet these three criteria.
CP: The ironic thing, of course, is that so much regarding the substance of your claims is easily accessible on the Internet—it was even summarized pretty well on the front page of the New York Times a couple of months ago. So why the extraordinary lengths to prevent any congressional or court action, do you think?
Edmonds: Because if they don’t do that, the court proceedings would have gone on, and that would have exposed the issues they want to cover up. For example, thousands of websites contain these letters written by Senators Grassley and Leahy since 2002 about the unclassified meeting the Judiciary Committee had with FBI officials, during which the FBI officials confirmed all my allegations and denied none. Now, using this and using these letters that were written—these were public letters, and that puts the government at a disadvantage. They can’t say well, this is secret, we can’t talk about it, because they divulged this information during unclassified meetings themselves.
They are playing it both ways, but unfortunately no one is challenging that. Neither the courts, especially this particular judge. Which is very interesting. My case went from one judge to another judge, mysteriously, without being provided any explanation on why, until it landed with this judge, Reggie Walton, who was recently appointed by President Bush. And it stayed in front of him. So neither the judges nor Congress is challenging these actions.
As far as the Congress goes, the whole attitude has been, they’re afraid to be labeled unpatriotic. Or things such as, ‘Well, this is Ashcroft, and you don’t mess with him. This guy’s crazy.’ This is what the senators, even Republicans, are saying.
CP: Most of the other whistleblowers say the Bureau tried to destroy their reputations or portray them as mentally unstable. Did they seek to do that to you at any point?
Edmonds: Absolutely not. In fact, for two and a half years--and this surprised me, because it’s rare--either with their briefings in front of the Senate, or when they talk off the record with other papers, they have not done that, because I think in a way, they know that if they do it, then based on information, evidence, documents, that I have, it’s going to get worse for them. So they have refrained from doing any of these name-smearings. The worst thing they said, initially, which they backed off, was that Sibel Edmonds’ contract was terminated purely for the government’s convenience. That’s the only reason they cited. Months later, the FBI leaked this information, actually inaccurate information, to the Associated Press, telling them that I was fired due to being disruptive with my whistleblowing and my allegations. Then later on, they backtracked on that.
I know my experience is rare.
CP: Tell me how the 9/11 families organization helped bring your story to light.
Edmonds: That’s an interesting story. In May 2003, I wrote to 9/11 Commission chairman Thomas Kean, sent a certified letter to his office, telling him that he needed to interview me because of the direct information I had about 9/11 issues. And also I knew of other witnesses I worked with who were willing to provide testimony to the 9/11 Commission if they were asked. They couldn’t go voluntarily, because some of these witnesses are still working for the FBI, but they wanted the Commission to subpoena them so they could give this information.
Interestingly, after following up with them, they said no, the Commission had very limited time, and most of the witnesses with related information would not be interviewed. So I let it go, but months later I met with some of the 9/11 family members, and I told them about what happened, and I showed them the letter. They were outraged, because they had been promised by the Commission that no witness was going to be turned away. They were going to talk to everybody, and look at every single document.
So we met with the 9/11 Commission in January 2004. We went there and we had meetings with some of the members. And boom, a month later they scheduled me to go out and provide testimony. And also I myself drove certain other witnesses—translators, assets, informants—to their offices to be interviewed. However, lots of these issues were not discussed in the report. They just referred to the IG report. And the IG report, as you know, is highly classified so far.
Later I attended the public hearings that the Commission held, and I worked with the family members and introduced them to other witnesses. Some of them are still working for the Bureau, so I would arrange meetings for them with the family members. They trusted the family members more than the Commission. They knew this Commission would not really put out most of the facts.
They have been very supportive, and I admire their courage. In addition to being in a grieving period, they went out there and fought. People label them as having agendas. Actually they have three agendas: Number one is the truth. Number two is the accountability they were after. Number three, making our system better.
CP: At what point in this process did you become aware of other, previous whistleblowers?
Edmonds: It didn’t happen until around March 2004. The reason for it was, initially I was represented by another law firm. This law firm’s approach was that you do not talk to the press. Their approach, unfortunately, is that of many legal firms. And I find it distasteful. The purpose becomes settlement. You pile up on psychologist bills, and you complain about some physical symptoms that you are supposedly suffering from the government’s retaliation. You don’t talk to the press. You play that as leverage for the government to come and settle with you for a certain amount. Then you go away.
That was not the reason I came forward. But for the first year and a half, that was my law firm’s approach. In March 2004, after I came forward with the family members and the press and the 9/11 Commission, and became a little more visible, people started contacting me, not only from the FBI but also other agencies like FAA or CIA.
[We talk about] what should we do? Because as you know, going to Congress did not pay off. They end up being gagged. The courts are not producing any results. IG reports take years, and at the end it’s either classified or whitewashed. So we started talking, saying what can we do, where can we go, because the system is broken and there are no channels to pursue. We try to channel these people to such organizations as POGO, Project on Government Oversight, or the family members, or certain members of the press who will look at what’s in the public channels.
CP: Have you had any members of Congress in your corner during this battle?
Edmonds: So far it has been very disappointing, and not even in a partisan way, which is very surprising. I have gone to so many people, banged on so many doors, in the past two and a half years that you would be amazed. The response has not been partisan. I have had certain Republicans who have been very supportive, and I have had certain Democrats who have been supportive, and I have had certain Democrats who have wanted to do absolutely nothing with it. In fact they would say that they don’t want to mess with it, because considering the upcoming election, it would hurt the Democrats.
So I haven’t seen any partisan attitude about it. Senator Grassley’s office, and Senator Grassley himself, have been by far, by far, the most straight to their word, the most consistently supportive person out there. He has defied all these fear reactions that other senators and congressmen have: We don’t want to be labeled, we don’t want to touch this thing. He has been talking to the press, he has come on various TV news programs, and has been plainly outspoken about the issues. His staff and his office have been absolutely valuable. In fact, if it was not for Senator Grassley and Senator Grassley’s office, the IG would have not even talked about finishing this report. They demanded that the report and investigation be expedited. They also provided the press with information and confirmation that was necessary to get the story out there. Because what happens, many media outlets will hear your story and think you may be crazy. You may be a liar. You may have an agenda. They want to go somewhere and verify the issues. With Senator Grassley, and to a certain extent with Senator Leahy, they have been very effective and very good. I don’t think they’ve gone all the way, but relatively speaking, they have been the best. And Senator Grassley by far has been the champion of this case.
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