The story of Sibel Edmonds is one that should not be overlooked amid the news flurry of naming a new CIA chief, the 9/11 Commission report and other ideas to remake the U.S. intelligence community.
Edmonds is a former FBI translator who handled wiretaps and documents in various Middle Eastern languages. She complained to higher-ups of incompetence and worse in the department. She was fired.
Her case suggests strongly that certain elements in the government are more interested in avoiding embarrassment than in protecting the country. The way to clear this matter up is to make all the documents related to her case public and conduct, or permit journalists and others to conduct, an intensive investigation into her charges.
A 33-year-old Turkish-American who speaks Turkish, Farsi and Azerbaijani in addition to English, Sibel Edmonds was hired as a translator right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She was surprised, as she told “60 Minutes” reporter Ed Bradley for an October 2002 report, that “We were told by our supervisors that this was the great opportunity for asking for increased budget and asking for more translators. And in order to do that, don’t do the work and let the documents pile up so we can show it and say that we need more translators and expand the department.”
She even claimed her supervisor would erase a day’s work from her computer after she left so she would have to start over.
Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Bradley, “She’s credible. And the reason I feel she’s very credible is because people within the FBI have corroborated a lot of her story.”
Edmonds also alleged that a translator who had passed neither the Turkish nor the English side of the FBI’s language proficiency test was sent to Guantanamo to act as a translator. The FBI later admitted that he was not fully qualified.
Edmonds claimed one Turkish translator was associated with “semi-legit organizations who were FBI targets of investigation,” and that this person for months mistranslated or blocked information about these organizations and even took “hundreds of pages of top-secret intelligence documents outside the FBI to unknown recipients.” This person (who has denied the allegations) was never reprimanded and now lives overseas.
The FBI let Edmonds go in March 2002 after she took some of her complaints to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Justice Department’s inspector general looked into the matter, and, according to a July 21, 2004, letter from FBI Director Robert Mueller to Judiciary Committee members, her whistleblowing activities “were at least a contributing factor in why the FBI terminated her services.”
(The full Inspector General’s report, like almost every aspect of the Edmonds case, has been retroactively classified as a “state secret.”)
Edmonds was called as a witness in a lawsuit brought by family members of 9/11 victims, but the Justice Department got the subpoena quashed and forbade her to testify. She did, however, testify at length to 9/11 Commission staff members, but the concerns she raised were not discussed in the commission’s report — not even a “we looked into this and found the charges unfounded or overblown.”
As Edmonds repeatedly asked in a detailed letter to Thomas Kean, chairman of the 9/11 Commission, “How can budget increases address and resolve this misconduct by midlevel bureaucratic management? How can the addition of an ‘intelligence czar’ solve this problem?”
The Sibel Edmonds case raises serious questions about whether the FBI and other intelligence agencies have even begun to undertake the reforms needed to improve the capacity to protect Americans from future attacks — and whether the 9/11 Commission report dealt sufficiently with the real shortcomings.
It looks as if the FBI and other agencies would rather punish those who raise inconvenient or embarrassing issues — thus sending the message to others who might be tempted to an excess of conscientiousness to just keep their heads down and never question superiors they believe are misguided.
A good start to resolving some of the troubling questions this case raises would be to declassify all documents relating to Sibel Edmonds’ accusations and allow journalists and other investigators to sort through them at will. But that should be only the start.