How the FBI Treats Whistleblowers? Very Badly

Gail Sheehy (presumably the Gail Sheehy, author of Passages and many other books that don't inspire faith in her reportorial skills….) writes a confusing but disturbing article in the New York Observer (the right-wingish newspaper trying to be an alternative to the far-from-left New York Times-)[As noted by the astute Patrick Nielsen Hayden, I confused the iconoclastic Observer with the bombastic NY Sun; at least that explains why Gail Sheehy would be writing for it!]

In Whistleblower Coming In Cold From the F.B.I. Ms. Sheehy tries to tell four stories in small space:

(1) the “Penttbom” moms who prodded the government into having a panel look into 9/11 failures, only to have the investigation deftly thrown into bureaucratic quicksand by Republicans who saw no profit in a report that might make the nation safer at their political expense.

(2) The story of Sibel Edmonds, a former FBI translator turned whistleblower and allegedly target for crude FBI harassment. [More on this below.]

(3) The substantive story alleged by Ms. Edmunds about an FBI translation department careless about security and penetrated by some people who, like Robert Hanssen before them, were not real subtle about what they were doing.

(4) The aftermath: While Senator Grassley champions her cause, Senator Hatch is the obstacle to further Senate hearings. Meanwhile Ms. Edmonds's lawsuit has run into the government's assertion of state secrets privilege.

If nothing else, the article has certainly whetted my appetite for more information. And I'd like to know whether Senator Hatch cares enough about national security to convene a followup hearing, if he thinks there's nothing to be worried about, or if another Republican will play politics with national security.

During her six months of work for the Bureau, Ms. Edmonds said she grew increasingly horrified by the lack of internal security she saw inside the very agency tasked with protecting our national security.

In papers filed with the F.B.I.’s internal investigative office, the Department of Justice, the Senate Judiciary Committee, and most recently with the 9/11 Commission, she has reported serious ongoing failures in the language division of the F.B.I. Washington Field Office. They include security lapses in hiring and monitoring of translators, investigations that have been compromised by incorrect or misleading translations sent to field agents; and thousands of pages of translations falsely labeled “not pertinent” by Middle Eastern linguists who were either not qualified in the target language or English, or, worse, protecting targets of investigation.

Nothing happened. Undaunted, Ms. Edmonds took her concerns to upper management. Soon afterward she was fired. The only cause given was “for the convenience of the government.” The F.B.I. has not refuted any of Ms. Edmonds’ allegations, yet they have accounted for none of them.

On the morning Ms. Edmonds was terminated, she said, she was escorted from the building by an agent she remembered saying: “We will be watching you and listening to you. If you dare to consult an attorney who is not approved by the F.B.I., or if you take this issue outside the F.B.I. to the Senate, the next time I see you, it will be in jail.” Two other agents were present.

“I know about my constitutional rights, but do you know how many translators would be intimidated?”

Shortly after her dismissal, F.B.I. agents turned up at the door of the Ms. Edmonds’ townhouse to seize her home computer. She was then called in to be polygraphed—a test which, she found out later, she passed. A few months after her dismissal, accompanied by her lawyer on a sunny morning in May 2002, Ms. Edmonds took her story to the Senate Judiciary Committee. As her high heels glanced off the marble steps of Congress she sensed two men ascending right behind her. Turning, she recognized the agent walk, the Ray-Bans, the outline of a weapon, and the deadest giveaway of all—a cell phone pointed straight at her, transmitting. “They weren’t secretive about it, they wanted me to know they’re there,” she said. After being shadowed in plain sight many more times, she said with dark humor, “I call them my escorts.”

After her meeting, Senator Chuck Grassley, the Republican vice-chair of the Judiciary Committee to whom Ms. Edmonds appealed, had his investigators check her out. Then they, along with staffers for Senator Patrick Leahy, called for a joint briefing in the summer of 2002. The F.B.I. sent a unit chief from the language division and an internal security official.

In a lengthy, unclassified session that one participant describes as bizarre, the windows fogged up as the session finished; it was that tense, “None of the F.B.I. officials’ answers washed, and they could tell we didn’t believe them.” He chuckles remembering one of the Congressional investigators saying, “You basically admitted almost all that Sibel alleged, yet you say there’s no problem here. What’s wrong with this picture?”

The Bureau briefers shrugged, put on their coats, and left. There was no way the F.B.I. was going to admit to another spy scandal only months after being scorched by the Webster Report on one of the most dangerous double agents in F.B.I. history, Robert Hanssen.

“I think the F.B.I. is ignoring a very major internal security breach,” said Grassley, “and a potential espionage breach.”

… “The culture of the F.B.I. is to worry about their own public relations. If you’re going to change that culture, somebody’s got to get fired.” He is not optimistic, however, that Congress will act aggressively. “Nobody wants to take on the F.B.I.

The translator had filed a complaint with the Inspector General of the Department of Justice on March 7, 2002. She was told then that an investigation would be undertaken and she could expect a report by the fall of 2002. Twenty-one months later, she is still waiting. She also filed a First Amendment case against the Department of Justice and the F.B.I. And a Freedom of Information case against the F.B.I. for release of documents pertaining to her work for the Bureau, to confirm her allegations. The F.B.I. refused her FOIA request. Their stated reason was the pending investigation by Justice, which, her sources in the Senate tell her, will probably be held up until after the November election.

When Ms. Edmonds wouldn’t go away or keep still, F.B.I. Director Mueller asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to assert the State Secrets Privilege in the case of Ms. Edmonds versus Department of Justice. Mr. Ashcroft obliged.

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3 Responses to How the FBI Treats Whistleblowers? Very Badly

  1. Calling the New York Observer “the right-wingish newspaper trying to be an alternative to the far-from-left New York Times” suggests to me that you’ve confused the Observer with the rather newer New York Sun. The Observer has actually published some pretty red liberal meat, like for instance columns by Joe Conason. Also, the Observer is a weekly paper; the Sun is an actual daily, founded on actual right-leaning principles.

  2. Michael says:

    Yup. You’re right. A correction is going up in a minute. Thank you!

    I might add that there’s nothing better than being corrected — the longer mistakes stay up, the worse I feel. So again, thank you!

  3. jake says:

    Boing Boing has some information about Edmonds that came out today…

    http://www.boingboing.net/2004/03/25/fbi_translator_says_.html

    I posted about it on my site, thought you might like to know.

    I can’t believe we’re hearing so much about Clarke when she’s been trying to get this information out since 2002.

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