Translator in eye of storm on retroactive classification
WASHINGTON -- Sifting through old classified materials in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, FBI translator Sibel Edmonds said, she made an alarming discovery: Intercepts relevant to the terrorist plot, including references to skyscrapers, had been overlooked because they were badly translated into English.
Edmonds, 34, who is fluent in Turkish and Farsi, said she quickly reported the mistake to an FBI superior. Five months later, after flagging what she said were several other security lapses in her division, she was fired. Now, after more than two years of investigations and congressional inquiries, Edmonds is at the center of an extraordinary storm over US classification rules that sheds new light on the secrecy imperative supported by members of the Bush administration.
In a rare maneuver, Attorney General John Ashcroft has ordered that information about the Edmonds case be retroactively classified, even basic facts that have been posted on websites and discussed openly in meetings with members of Congress for two years. The Department of Justice also invoked the seldom-used ''state secrets" privilege to silence Edmonds in court. She has been blocked from testifying in a lawsuit brought by victims of the Sept. 11 attacks and was allowed to speak to the panel investigating the Sept. 11 attacks only behind closed doors.
Meanwhile, the FBI has yet to release its internal investigation into her charges. And the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the bureau, has been stymied in its attempt to get to the bottom of her allegations. Now that the case has been retroactively classified, lawmakers are wary of discussing the details, for fear of overstepping legal bounds.
''I'm alarmed that the FBI is reaching back in time and classifying information it provided two years ago," Senator Charles E. Grassley, a Republican from Iowa and a leading advocate for Edmonds, said last Friday. ''Frankly, it looks like an attempt to impede legitimate oversight of a serious problem at the FBI."
Edmonds, a naturalized US citizen who grew up in Turkey and Iran, said in an interview last week that the ordeal has made her grow disillusioned with the ''magical system of checks and balances and separation of powers" that had made her so drawn to the United States. ''What I came to see is that it exists only in name," Edmonds said. ''Where is the oversight? Who is there to stop him [Ashcroft]?"
In a development that legal analysts say is disturbing, a pattern of retroactive classifications has begun to emerge in recent years, all of them pertaining to -- but not limited to -- national security. For example, Representative John F. Tierney, Democrat of Massachusetts, is locked in an ongoing battle with the Defense Department over testing requirements for a national missile defense system that were made public in 2000 but have since been declared classified.
Bush administration officials argue that the three-year campaign against terrorism has required unprecedented levels of confidentiality, especially inside intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Critics do not dispute the need for heightened secrecy in the current environment. Edmonds is careful not to discuss standard classified information, such as methods the FBI used to obtain the material she translated.
But she and a growing number of her defenders -- who include a government watchdog group, some Sept. 11 families, and Grassley, a Bush administration ally -- maintain that the secrecy imposed on her case has jeopardized national security. One of Edmonds's assertions to her superiors included suspicions of espionage within the FBI, which she said the bureau has not addressed.
''Their [the administration's] mantra seems to be that secrecy promotes safety, and I don't think that's true," said David Vladeck, a Georgetown University law professor who is representing the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight in a lawsuit challenging the retroactive classification. ''At times, I think secrecy breeds suspicion."
Edmonds's native skills drew her to languages. Born in Istanbul, raised for seven years in Tehran, with Azerbaijani relatives on her father's side, she speaks three languages crucial to intelligence-gathering in the Middle East. She does not speak Arabic. But her specialty languages were no less important after Sept. 11, 2001, when investigators began tracking Al Qaeda and other terrorist connections in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Iran.
She had a job application at the FBI before Sept. 11, and it was accelerated after the attacks so she could start work Sept. 20. One of her main assignments, she said, was to expedite requested translations from field agents, including material that a field agent in Arizona submitted for retranslation on a suspicion that it had not been examined thoroughly before Sept. 11.
''After I retranslated it verbatim, I went to my supervisor to say, 'I need to talk to this agent over a secure line because what we came across in this retranslating is gigantic, it has specific information about certain specific activity related to 9/11,' " Edmonds recalled. ''The supervisor blocked this retranslation from being sent to the same agent. The reasoning this [supervisor] gave me was, 'How would you like it if another translator did this same thing to you? The original translator is going to be held responsible.' "
In the end, Edmonds said, the field agent who requested a reinterpretation of the intelligence material ''knew there were things that were missing, and yet he was reassured by the Washington field office that the original translation was fine."
Edmonds said the intercept jumped out at her because it contained references to skyscrapers and the US visa application process. Such references might have triggered suspicions at Immigration and Naturalization Services before Sept. 11 if they had been correctly translated, she said, but they seemed unrelated before the attacks, in part because they were gathered during the course of a criminal investigation.
[A Phoenix FBI agent was the source of a memo before the attacks warning about Middle Easterners taking flying lessons. Edmonds does not know whether the same agent is related to her case.]
Edmonds said she made another troubling discovery: One of her colleagues admitted being a member of an organization with ties to the Middle East that was a target of an FBI investigation. The colleague, also a Turkish translator, invited Edmonds to join the group, assuring her that her FBI credentials would guarantee admission. Edmonds declined to name the organization, because she said it has been under surveillance.
Two months later, Edmonds said, one of the agents she worked with found hundreds of pages of translation that her Turkish-speaking colleague had stamped ''not pertinent" and had therefore gone untranslated.
The agent asked Edmonds to retranslate her colleague's work. ''We came across 17 pieces of extremely specific and important information that was blocked, and at that point, this agent and I went to the FBI security department in the Washington field office, and found out my supervisor had not reported my original complaints," she said.
Edmonds said she was repeatedly warned that she would be opening a ''can of worms" if she kept filing security complaints, but she continued reporting lapses to ever-higher levels of management until, in March 2002, she wrote a letter to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, she said. She also contacted the Senate Judiciary Committee. In response, the FBI confiscated her home computer, challenged her to take a polygraph test, which she said she passed, and terminated her contract.
A Justice Department spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. Previously, officials have said Edmonds was fired for disruptive behavior on the job.
Over the summer of 2002, the Senate Judiciary Committee requested and received unclassified briefings about her case by FBI officials, in which Senate aides said the FBI confirmed much of what Edmonds had alleged. Senators Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, and Grassley, the Republican, wrote letters to Ashcroft, Mueller, and Glenn A. Fine, the inspector general at the Department of Justice, requesting immediate attention to Edmonds's case. They posted their letters on their websites, and Edmonds went public with her story, which was featured in a segment on ''60 Minutes" in October 2002.
Edmonds also filed suit against the Justice Department on First Amendment grounds. That prompted Ashcroft to invoke the rare ''state secrets" privilege, arguing ''the litigation creates substantial risks of disclosing classified and sensitive national security information," a Department of Justice news release said.
Edmonds's lawsuits have since been stalled in court, but other Sept. 11-related cases, involving the independent panel's investigation and civil lawsuits involving victims' relatives, have put her saga back in the spotlight. The Senate Judiciary Committee recently e-mailed staff members informing them the FBI now considers the information related to Edmonds classified and warning them not to disseminate it anymore.
Grassley's and Leahy's offices have removed their letters to Justice officials from their websites, though the letters are still available on the Internet.
Anne E. Kornblut can be reached at email@example.com.