Search Asia Times

Advanced Search

 
Front Page

Whistleblower explodes 9-11 Commission Report
By Ritt Goldstein

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation's own September 11 whistleblower has done it again, this time taking aim at the 9-11 Commission itself.

Sibel Edmonds, an FBI translator who has in effect been silenced by the bureau and the US Justice Department, said in an open letter to commission chairman Thomas Kean that the FBI had suffered from a litany of errors and cover-ups of those errors, which had been reported to the 9-11 Commission by Edmonds and others, yet the commission report "contains zero information regarding these systemic problems that led us to our failure in preventing the [September 11, 2001] terrorist attacks".

"In your report, there are no references to individuals responsible for hindering past and current investigations, or those who are willing to compromise our security and our lives for their career advancement and security," wrote Edmonds, a 33-year-old Turkish-American whose services as a translator were terminated by the FBI after she claimed vast wrongdoing within the bureau's translation unit.

Edmonds' open letter, while skirting around certain issues that she is prohibited by gag orders from revealing, is chilling in its revelations that, contrary to public claims by the administration of President George W Bush, the FBI was in possession months before September 2001 of intelligence that Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization was planning a major attack on the United States, using airplanes as a weapon.

These revelations are not new, though the open letter is remarkable in its specificity and naming of names. Previously, while being careful not to violate the legal silencing measures imposed on her by the FBI, the courts and the Justice Department, she has leveled damning criticisms in the media of her former employers and what she has termed the Bush administration's "anti-transparency, anti-accountability and their corrupt attitudes".

"But that aside," she told radio interviewer Jim Hogue in April, "we are not made of only one branch of government. We are supposed to have a system of checks and balances. And I am saying, how about the other two branches? And putting the pressure on our representatives in the Senate and the Congress, and the court system? They should be counteracting this corruption, but they are sitting there silent. And they are just an audience, just watching it happen."

That interview took place before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon which the United States issued its final report on the September 11 attacks. Despite hours of testimony to the commission about what she knew of FBI failures leading up to the attacks, nearly nothing of this was mentioned in the report.

"While FBI agents from various field offices were desperately seeking leads and suspects, and completely depending on FBI HQ and its language units to provide them with needed translated information, hundreds of translators were being told by their administrative supervisors not to translate and to let the work pile up," Edmonds wrote in her letter. "I provided your investigators with a detailed and specific account of this issue and the names of other witnesses willing to corroborate this.

"Today, almost three years after [September 11], and more than two years since this information has been confirmed and made available to our government, the administrators in charge of language departments of the FBI remain in their positions and in charge of the information front lines of the FBI's counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence efforts. Your report has omitted any reference to this most serious issue ..."

Specific charges made by Edmonds included the case of a Turkish translator, whom she named, and who "for months ... blocked all-important information related to ... semi-legit organizations and the individuals she and her husband associated with ... [The translator] and several FBI targets of investigation hastily left the United States in 2002, and the case still remains uninvestigated criminally. Not only does the supervisor facilitating these criminal conducts remain in a supervisory position, he has been promoted to supervising Arabic-language units of the FBI's counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence investigations."

Edmonds also spoke of a translator put in charge of sensitive operations who not only could not speak English well enough to pass FBI proficiency tests, but he also could not speak the languages he was in charge of translating. Despite the fact that his case was made public on CBS television's 60 Minutes, and "after admitting that [he] was not qualified to perform the task of translating sensitive intelligence and investigation of terrorist activities, the FBI still keeps him in charge of translating highly sensitive documents and leads," Edmonds revealed.

But while Edmonds' letter delivered a cascade of specific allegations, perhaps the most explosive charge she makes concerns information the bureau was said to have received four months prior to September 2001, information warning of the September 11 plan. While both President Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice have repeatedly denied that there was any indication that airplanes would be used as a terror weapon, Edmonds revealed that in April 2001 the bureau had information that bin Laden was "planning a major terrorist attack in the United States targeting four to five major cities"; "the attack was going to involve airplanes"; some of those involved were already "in the United States"; and the attack would be "in a few months". Edmonds states that the information came from "a long-term FBI informant/asset" and that it was sent to the "special agent in charge of counter-terrorism" in Washington. She also charges that after September 11 "the agents and translators were told to 'keep quiet' regarding this issue".

Further to that, she writes, "The Phoenix Memo, received months prior to the [September 11] attacks, specifically warned FBI HQ of pilot training and their possible link to terrorist activities against the United States. Four months prior to the terrorist attacks the Iranian asset provided the FBI with specific information regarding the 'use of airplanes', 'major US cities as targets', and 'Osama bin Laden issuing the order' ...

"All this information went to the same place: FBI Headquarters in Washington, DC, and the FBI Washington Field Office, in Washington DC. Yet your report claims that not having a central place where all intelligence could be gathered as one of the main factors in our intelligence failure. Why did your report choose to exclude the information regarding the Iranian asset and [translator] Behrooz Sarshar from its timeline of missed opportunities? Why was this significant incident not mentioned, despite the public confirmation by the FBI, witnesses provided to your investigators, and briefings you received directly? Why did you surprise even [FBI] director [Robert] Mueller by refraining from asking him questions regarding this significant incident and lapse during your hearing ... ?"

Given the sweeping nature of Edmonds' knowledge of intelligence failures in the lead-up to September 11, it is probably not surprising that the US government has used its legal clout to try to shut her up. In what the July 29 New York Times termed "an unusually broad veil of secrecy", the Justice Department ordered the details surrounding Edmonds' allegations a matter of "state secrets". On May 13, Attorney General John Ashcroft had signed an order forbidding her to testify in a case brought by the families of September 11 victims, invoking rarely used "state secrets" authority. Edmonds was also broadly prohibited from discussing the facts surrounding her assertions.

It is unclear what personal consequences this latest whistleblowing may have for Edmonds. But notably, none of her prior revelations have been determined erroneous; rather, they have increasingly been found accurate.

A July 21 letter from FBI director Mueller to Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, notes that an inspector general's report found her whistleblowing "a contributing factor in why the FBI terminated her services". Mueller's letter also noted that, based upon the report's findings, a new FBI determination to pursue "discipline of FBI employees" and "additional investigation" of Edmonds' allegations had yet to be made.

Mueller's July 21 letter, of which Asia Times Online obtained a copy, also pointedly outlined that the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) "noted that Ms Edmonds, as a contract employee, did not qualify for 'whistleblower' protection".

With her open letter to the 9-11 Commission providing what can only be termed a damning mantra of revelation, on six separate occasions within the text Edmonds identically questioned how huge budget increases and the creation of an insulated "intelligence czar" could alleviate "systemic and departmental" problems.

Mueller's letter to Hatch outlined that the "OIG criticized the FBI's failure to adequately pursue Ms Edmonds' allegations of espionage" regarding the above-mentioned translator who "hastily left the United States in 2002".

Again, the OIG's report is known to have criticized the bureau's conduct regarding its pursuit of Edmonds' claim of ongoing espionage, with Edmonds presently revealing that "hundreds of pages of top-secret sensitive intelligence documents" were taken outside the bureau to "unknown recipients" by her co-worker in question.

Edmonds described the FBI's perspective upon this as being "that it would not look good for the bureau if this security breach and espionage case was investigated and made public", concurrently citing the blemish that the last FBI spy scandal had left, that of Robert Hanssen.

Her letter is particularly noteworthy for its specific naming of those involved in the wrongdoing she cites, and in providing corroboration of her account, including such by those within the government. Notably, two key members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Iowa Republican Charles Grassley and Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, had requested the OIG's investigation of Edmonds' FBI allegations in 2002, Grassley terming her "very credible".

On July 9, the two senators jointly wrote to Ashcroft, Mueller and Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine requesting that the OIG's pertinent reports be made publicly available.

The senators' letter specified three OIG reports: one on Sibel Edmonds, another on the FBI translation program, and a third upon whether information "obtained by the FBI and other federal law-enforcement agencies" preceding September 11 "was not acted upon, or not acted on in the most effective and efficient manner". The senators requested that these documents either be declassified or made available to the public via summary. Asia Times Online has obtained a copy of this letter in which the senators highlight that they are seeking "to understand how important clues were overlooked", and that the information in question is significant to both the "public interest" and "congressional oversight".

Leahy and Grassley emphasized that they "fear that the designation of information as classified in some cases serves to protect the executive branch against embarrassing revelations and full accountability". They also observe that a failure to provide the OIG's findings "could damage the public's confidence not only in the government's ability to protect the nation, but also in the government's ability to police itself".

Again, from what has emerged from the classified OIG action, none of Edmonds' accounts of FBI wrongdoing appear to have been found erroneous.

In what critics of the Bush administration have long seen as a contrast, a March 22 Washington Post op-ed piece by Condoleezza Rice stated: "Despite what some have suggested, we received no intelligence that terrorists were preparing to attack the homeland using airplanes as missiles, though some analysts speculated that terrorists might hijack planes to try and free US-held terrorists." And according to an April interview Edmonds gave to the United Kingdom's Independent newspaper, she termed Rice's claim "an outrageous lie", saying, "I saw papers that show the US knew al-Qaeda would attack cities with airplanes," referring to the April information she has now written of.

Of particular note is that Edmonds did provide several hours of secret testimony to the 9-11 Commission. Cutting to what she perceives as part of the US government's shortcomings, in her present letter Edmonds strongly emphasizes an "unspoken policy of 'protecting certain foreign business relations' ... 'safeguarding certain diplomatic relations'", as substantively contributing to the general lack of candor she charges.

On July 22, 2002, Sibel Edmonds launched a civil suit in the US District Court for the District of Columbia against the Justice Department. The suit cited an FBI release of information that she was the "subject of a security review", that she had been retaliated against by the bureau for her whistleblowing activity, and that there had been "interference" with her ability to obtain future employment as well as a wrongful "termination" of her FBI services.

Asia Times Online has obtained a copy of the court's recent decision, and in its presentation of the case's "Factual Background" - beyond the allegations Edmonds widely made - it notes that Edmonds asserted that "the safety and security of the Plaintiff (Edmonds) and her family has been jeopardized and that a foreign country has targeted Plaintiff's sister to be interrogated 'and taken/arrested by force'". It also notes that on May 8, 2002, Senator Grassley wrote to Mueller regarding what he perceived as the gravity of Edmonds' charges, urging Mueller to "emphasize to [FBI] officials ... that retaliation against current or former FBI employees is not acceptable, especially when retaliation endangers a person's family member".

On July 6 the court decided Edmonds' case, finding that "the plaintiff's case must be dismissed, albeit with great consternation, in the interests of national security", doing so as Ashcroft invoked the seldom-used "state secrets privilege", in effect precluding a trial.

(For the full text of Sibel Edmonds' open letter to 9-11 Commission chairman Thomas Kean, please click here.)

Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist based in Stockholm.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)


Aug 5, 2004



A failure of imagination
(Jul  24, '04)

9-11: The big question remains unasked
(Apr 20, '04)

A real smoking gun
(Apr 8, '04)

Rice: No end to controversy
(Apr 1, '04)

 

 
   
       
No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online, 4305 Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Rd, Central, Hong Kong