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Sibel Edmonds’s Secrets

The gagged whistleblower takes on FBI corruption in a new book.

Sibel Edmonds is no stranger to longtime TAC readers. I wrote an article exploring some of her claims back in January 2008, a blog item in August 2009, and Kara Hopkins and I did an interview with her for the November 2009 issue of the magazine. It was featured on the cover as “Who’s Afraid of Sibel Edmonds?

Edmonds has recently written a book entitled Classified Woman detailing her journey from FBI translator to whistleblower, finally emerging as an outspoken advocate of free speech and transparency in government through her founding of the National Security Whistleblowers’ Coalition and her always informative Boiling Frogs Post website.

As Edmonds ruefully notes, her tale of high level mendacity has always found a better reception in the European and Asian media than in the United States, though her odyssey has included an appearance on “60 Minutes” in October 2002 and a feature article in Vanity Fair called “An Inconvenient Patriot” in September 2005. Two senators, Chuck Grassley and Patrick Leahy, became interested in her case early on and found her a credible witness, as did a U.S. Department of Justice IG’s report. She speculates that that her ostracism by the Fourth Estate, and also by congressmen who were ostensibly engaged in elevating government ethics, is due to the fact that both Republicans and Democrats were parties to the criminal behavior that she describes. In one particularly delicious account of high level shenanigans she recounts how an interview with Congressman Henry Waxman’s House Oversight and Government Reform staff was stopped abruptly when a staffer asked her if any Democrats were involved. “We have to stop here and not go any further. We don’t want to know,” he intoned after she confirmed that the malfeasance was not strictly GOP.

I will not even try to reconstruct all the twists and turns that Edmonds describes in her 341 pages, but rest assured that she has the ability to surprise one with new revelations, even for readers like myself who have been following her case. Edmonds’s tale is basically about high level incompetence at the FBI both before and after 9/11, including hiring translators who could not speak the language they were translating or who were former employees of the organizations being investigated, leading to deliberately falsified translations. The translators and their supervisors would engage in go-slows, sabotage of work already done, and padding of accounts within the department to create a backlog of work and red ink, thus encouraging budget increases and more resources to rectify the shortfalls. Laptops and files containing classified information regularly disappeared. Attempts to report security problems were routinely ignored as all levels within the bureau because no one wanted to make anyone look bad. One Edmonds supervisor described the translation department as “drowned in corruption, incompetence, nepotism, you name it…” but then proceeded to do nothing about it. Bear in mind that this was after 9/11, when the government was on high alert and allegedly fully focused on security issues.

Perhaps more disturbing, Edmonds describes a number of failures to appreciate significant intelligence that might have enabled the government to foil 9/11, all part and parcel of a pervasive underlying narrative of espionage and corruption by high level government officials, both appointed and elected. She names names at the bureau, in Congress, and also at the State Department and Pentagon, including Congressmen Dennis Hastert, Dan Burton, Roy Blunt, Bob Livingston, Stephen Solarz, and Tom Lantos. She also fingers Douglas Feith, who headed the Office of Special Plans at the Pentagon, and Marc Grossman, who was the third ranking official at the State Department. Per Edmonds, all were part of the vast criminal enterprise that stole U.S. defense secrets, diverted weapons sales through false end-user certificates, participated in drug trafficking, and engaged in money laundering and bribery. The epicenter of the activity was Turkey and its major affiliates in the U.S., the American Turkish Council and the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, which were two of the targets that Edmonds worked on, but she also learned that there was a parallel organization in Israel which cooperated with the Turks, most particularly on illegal weapons sales and technology transfers. Chicago was a focal point for the Turkish efforts, apparently due to good access to then House Speaker Hastert. The Israelis and Turks between them operated a number of front companies and had agents reporting to them who provided information from inside top secret nuclear weapons labs. Most of the buyers for the technology and weapons were governments in Asia, though there was at least one non-state player that might have had connections with terrorist groups.

The government’s response to Edmonds’s claims has been to gag her through exercise of the State Secrets Privilege, which is designed to prevent the release of classified information, but which has been abused by both the Bush and Obama administrations to stop troublesome judicial proceedings without having to show cause. The first State Secrets Privilege invocation against her was followed up by a second order making the gag retroactive and extending it to any conversations or documents that Edmonds had shared with individual congressmen. And not only has she been forbidden to speak of what she learned at the FBI, her identity is also classified. She cannot tell anyone where she was born or when, what languages she speaks, where she was educated, or where she has worked. Today’s national security environment in which First Amendment rights are vanishing reaches its culmination in Sibel Edmonds, whose entire life has been apparently placed off limits.

Edmonds reports how the translation of a telephone intercept that she was reviewing for accuracy apparently referred to 9/11, though its importance had not been noted by her predecessor. The conversation took place in Pakistan in July 2001 involving two men talking about obtaining blueprints for buildings and bridges, clearly part of the planning for the actual attacks. One day after 9/11 the same men congratulated each other and started to plan for the next series of attacks “using young women between the ages of 18 and 24…” Edmonds’s attempts to get FBI to follow up and possibly identify some of the perpetrators after the fact failed to gain any traction as her superiors in the translations bureau felt they would look bad owing to their failure to correctly interpret the conversations first time around.

And then there was the case of an Iranian source who reported in the spring and summer of 2001 very specific information that Osama bin Laden was planning a major terrorist attack against the United States using planes. As the summer waned, he reported that the attack was imminent and asked, “Are they going to do something about it?” They didn’t, and then covered it up to conceal the failure. There were also French intelligence sources providing names of the terrorists preparing to stage the attacks and other reports that the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI, was somehow either involved or had knowledge of what was about to occur. There was no follow-up anywhere due to sheer incompetence, and subsequent attempts by Edmonds and some knowledgeable FBI officers to have the issues addressed by the 9/11 commission for inclusion in its report were rebuffed, meaning that the report that finally surfaced was a predictable more-or-less uncritical government review of what the government had or had not done, ascribing the failure to anticipate 9/11 to poor communications rather than to the egregious mishandling of available intelligence. A commission that had been established to establish accountability consequently did everything it could to avoid punishing anyone.

The increasingly kleptocratic attempts by the government to silence Edmonds were sometimes Kafkaesque. Instructed by a supervisor to secretly prepare a memo at home so no one might access it on her office computer she was later threatened by the same supervisor with possible criminal charges for doing classified work on an unsecured machine, which was subsequently confiscated. When Edmonds finally went to trial in a challenge to her gag order, the panel of three federal judges required her and her lawyers to leave the room while the government presented its case “due to the sensitivity and secrecy involved.” Not surprisingly, the court upheld the State Secrets Privilege and to this day Edmonds has never been informed of the actual charges against her.

Classified Woman relies on reconstructed conversations to tell its story, and one should accept that at least some of the dialogue might be based on recollections that could well be challenged due to the passage of time. But there should be little doubt that Sibel Edmond’s central thesis, that government incompetence and corruption are issues that politicians and state bureaucracies would rather discuss than do anything about, has been around for a while and is with us still.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.



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