Sibel Edmonds, a 32-year-old Turkish-American, was hired as a translator by the FBI shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 because of her knowledge of Middle Eastern languages. She was fired less than a year later in March 2002 for reporting shoddy work and security breaches to her supervisors that could have prevented those attacks.
Edmonds has been fighting the corruption permeating the FBI since her unfair dismissal and sued to contest her firing in July 2002. On July 6, 2004 , Judge Reggie Walton in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed Edmonds’ case, citing the government’s state secrets privilege. The American Civil Liberties Union is representing Edmonds in her appeal of that ruling. Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for April 21, 2005.
The privilege, when properly invoked, permits the government to block the release in litigation of any material that, if disclosed, would cause harm to national security. However, the government has employed the privilege to dismiss Edmonds’ entire case in an effort to protect itself from embarrassment. While an FBI translator, Edmonds discovered poorly translated documents relevant to the 9-11 attacks and reported the shoddy work to her supervisors. She also expressed concerns about a co-worker who had previously worked for an organization under FBI surveillance and had a relationship with a foreign intelligence officer also under surveillance. In addition, Edmonds claimed that she was told to work slowly to give the appearance that the agency was overworked so it would receive a larger budget, despite a large backlog of documents that needed translating.
Even though she followed all appropriate procedures for reporting her concerns up the chain of command, Edmonds was retaliated against and fired. After her termination, many of Edmonds’ allegations were confirmed by the FBI in unclassified briefings to Congress. More than two years later, in May 2004, the Justice Department retroactively classified Edmonds’ briefings, as well as the FBI briefings, and forced Members of Congress who had the information posted on their Web sites to remove the documents.
The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) sued the Justice Department and Attorney General John Ashcroft in June 2004 claiming the retroactive classification of Edmond’s testimony was a violation of the First Amendment. That lawsuit is still pending, although Ashcroft and the Justice Department have moved to dismiss the suit.
The remarkable act of retroactive classification exemplifies a dangerous abuse of secrecy by the government regarding Edmonds’ case. At least two Senators, Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), publicly support Edmonds and have pushed the Justice Department to declassify at least some of its investigation into her dismissal.
On January 14, 2004 , the Justice Department’s Office unclassified summary of the Justice Department’s Inspector General’s report on Edmonds found that many of her claims “were supported, that the FBI did not take them seriously enough, and that her allegations were, in fact, the most significant factor in the FBI’s decision to terminate her services.”
SEPT. 11, 2001: Terrorists attack the U.S., killing 3,000 in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania.
FALL 2001: Sibel Edmonds is hired by the FBI as a contract translator.
FALL 2001 – MARCH 2002: Edmonds discovers and reports several problems inside the FBI, including shoddy translation work, a large backlog of untranslated documents and employees with questionable alliances.
MARCH 2002: Edmonds is fired from the FBI.
JUNE 2002: The FBI acknowledges the truth of some of Edmonds’ allegations.
JUNE 2002: Senators Grassley and Leahy write the Justice Department Inspector General a letter asking specific questions about Edmonds’ allegations and write that the FBI has confirmed many of her allegations in unclassified briefings. This letter is later retroactively classified in May 2004.
JULY 2002: Edmonds files a lawsuit to challenge the FBI’s retaliatory actions.
AUGUST 2002: Senator Leahy writes Attorney General John Ashcroft a letter asking for a speedy and thorough investigation of Edmonds’ case. This letter is later retroactively classified in May 2004. The investigation is not completed for another two years, and then is classified.
FEBRUARY 2004: Edmonds testifies to the 9-11 Commission about problems at the FBI.
MAY 2004: The Justice Department retroactively classifies Edmonds’ briefings to Senators Grassley and Leahy in 2002, as well as FBI briefings regarding her allegations.
JUNE 2004: The Project On Government Oversight files suit against the Justice Department and Attorney General Ashcroft, saying the retroactive classification violates the organization’s First Amendment rights.
JULY 2004: A Justice Department investigation into Edmonds’ dismissal is completed but is entirely classified. The report finds that Edmonds’ allegations of corruption within the FBI “”were at least a contributing factor” in her dismissal.
JULY 2004: Judge Reggie Walton in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismisses Edmonds’ lawsuit, relying on the government’s states secrets privilege.
JANUARY 2005: ACLU files brief urging the D.C. Court of Appeals to reinstate the Edmonds’ case, saying that the government is abusing the “”state secrets privilege”” to silence employees who expose national security blunders. Oral argument is scheduled for April 21, 2005.
JANUARY 2005: The Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General releases an unclassified summary of its investigation into Edmonds’ termination. The report concludes that Edmonds was fired for reporting serious security breaches and misconduct in the agency’s translation program, and that many of her allegations were supported.
Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.