Whistle-Blowing Said to Be Factor in an F.B.I.
By ERIC LICHTBLAU
Published: July 29, 2004
WASHINGTON, July 28 - A classified Justice Department investigation has
concluded that a former F.B.I. translator at the center of a growing
controversy was dismissed in part because she accused the bureau of
ineptitude, and it found that the F.B.I. did not aggressively
investigate her claims of espionage against a co-worker.
The Justice Department's inspector general concluded that the
allegations by the translator, Sibel Edmonds, "were at least a
contributing factor in why the F.B.I. terminated her services," and the
F.B.I. is considering disciplinary action against some employees as a
result, Robert S. Mueller III, director of the bureau, said in a letter
last week to lawmakers. A copy of the letter was obtained by The New
Ms. Edmonds worked as a contract linguist for the F.B.I. for about six
months, translating material in Turkish, Persian and Azerbaijani. She
was dismissed in 2002 after she complained repeatedly that bureau
linguists had produced slipshod and incomplete translations of important
terrorism intelligence before and after the Sept. 11 attacks. She also
accused a fellow Turkish linguist in the bureau's Washington field
office of blocking the translation of material involving acquaintances
who had come under F.B.I. suspicion and said the bureau had allowed
diplomatic sensitivities with other nations to impede the translation of
important terrorism intelligence.
The Edmonds case has proved to be a growing concern to the F.B.I.
because it touches on three potential vulnerabilities for the bureau:
its ability to translate sensitive counterterrorism material, its
treatment of internal "whistle-blowers," and its classification of
sensitive material that critics say could be embarrassing to the bureau.
The Justice Department has imposed an unusually broad veil of secrecy on
the Edmonds case, declaring details of her case to be a matter of "state
secrets." The department has blocked her from testifying in a lawsuit
brought by families of Sept. 11 victims, it has retroactively classified
briefings Congressional officials were given in 2002, and it has
classified the inspector general's entire report on its investigation
into her case. As a result, groups promoting government openness have
accused the Justice Department of abusing the federal procedures in
place for classifying sensitive material.
Mr. Mueller's letter, sent July 21 to leading members of the Senate
Judiciary Committee, offered a rare glimpse inside the F.B.I.'s thinking
on the case, and its content surprised some congressional officials.
Given the tight secrecy surrounding the case, "one could argue that
Mueller himself disclosed classified material" by quoting from a
still-secret Justice Department report, said one congressional official
who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In his letter, Mr. Mueller said he was pleased that the office of the
inspector general "had not concluded that the F.B.I. retaliated against
Ms. Edmonds when it terminated her services on April 2, 2002." At the
same time, he said, "I was concerned by the O.I.G.'s conclusion that Ms.
Edmonds' allegations 'were at least a contributing factor in why the
F.B.I. terminated her services.' "
He said the F.B.I. would work with the inspector general to determine
whether any employees should be disciplined as a result. And he
emphasized that he wanted to encourage all F.B.I. employees to "raise
good faith concerns about mismanagement or misconduct" without fear of
reprisals or intimidation.
The letter did not say what other factors, if any, beyond Ms. Edmonds's
accusations may have played a part in the decision to dismiss her. In
the past, federal officials have suggested that her allegations had
nothing to do with her dismissal, pointing instead to what they
described as her "disruptive" presence in the field office.
The inspector general "also criticized the F.B.I.'s failure to
adequately pursue Ms. Edmonds's allegations of espionage as they related
to one of her colleagues," Mr. Mueller said in his letter.
In that case, Ms. Edmonds accused a fellow Turkish linguist at the F.B.I.
of failing to disclose her previous contacts with members of an overseas
group who became the subject of an intelligence investigation and of
blocking the translation of material as "not pertinent."
Mr. Mueller said that the F.B.I.'s prior review of the case did not
corroborate Ms. Edmonds's allegations. Nor was anyone charged as a
result of the espionage investigation. But Mr. Mueller said that given
the inspector general's concerns that the case was not adequately
investigated, the F.B.I. plans to revisit the case and "conduct
additional investigation as appropriate."
Officials at the F.B.I. and the inspector general's office declined
comment on the Edmonds case Wednesday, saying the review remains
An official with knowledge of the report who spoke on condition of
anonymity said investigators confirmed some of Ms. Edmonds's allegations
about translation problems to be true, but could not corroborate others
because of a lack of evidence. None of her accusations were disproved,
the official said.
Ms. Edmonds said in an interview Wednesday that she had not been
informed about any of the inspector general's findings and was planning
a lawsuit to force the public release of the report.
She said was gratified to hear that the inspector general found that her
allegations played a part in her dismissal, and she said public pressure
was needed to correct what she considers continuing problems in the
F.B.I.'s ability to translate terrorism intelligence.
"Here we are almost three years after Sept. 11, and these problems have
not been corrected," she said. "This is one of the major problems the
intelligence community is facing."
F.B.I. officials say that while they are continuing to seek more
linguists, particularly in Arabic, Farsi and other languages critical to
terrorism investigations, they believe they have already made strong
inroads in correcting translation problems.
According to data supplied to Congress, the F.B.I tripled the number of
Arabic language specialists and contract linguists on staff from Sept.
11, 2001, to this March, with the number rising to 209 from 70. Overall,
the number of linguists rose to 1,227 from 784, the bureau said.