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'Nuff Said

In the aftermath of September 11, the FBI hired Sibel Edmonds--and hundreds of others who, like her, were fluent in Middle Eastern languages--to translate thousands of hours of backlogged wiretap transcripts and other documents. Edmonds didn't stay at the FBI for very long, though. In March 2002, after she complained to her supervisor about poor management, slow progress, and even a possible spy within the translators' department, she was fired. In response, Edmonds filed a wrongful termination suit, went on "60 Minutes," and even sat down with staffers for Senators Charles Grassley and Patrick Leahy, who have pushed the FBI to respond to her claims--a response that, two years later, has yet to arrive. Edmonds's case, Grassley charged last week in a Senate hearing with FBI Director Robert Mueller, is evidence that the Bureau is refusing "to face up to its problems with translation."

Last week, the Justice Department, which oversees the Bureau, finally took action--by announcing that all the information it had provided to Grassley and Leahy about Edmonds and her accusations, even seemingly mundane details, such as which languages she speaks, had been "reclassified." Copies of follow-up letters sent by Grassley and Leahy to the FBI have been removed from the senators' websites, and their staffs are now prevented from talking about what was, until last week, public knowledge. The Justice Department refuses to discuss the matter, even to verify that information has in fact been reclassified. "I think it's ludicrous, because I understand that almost all of this information is in the public domain and has been very widely available," Grassley said during last week's hearing. "This classification is very serious, because it seems like the FBI would be attempting to put a gag order on Congress."

Indeed, the Edmonds "reclassification" is only the latest attempt by the FBI to hide, rather than confront, its problems. "We worry that you have not solved some of your most basic problems," Leahy told Mueller last week. "Your information-technology systems are hopelessly out of date. The FBI is not much better off today than it was before 9/11." And, when people inside the Bureau try to point this out, they are routinely brushed aside: For months, the FBI ignored Coleen Rowley, a Minneapolis agent who claimed the Bureau had missed prior evidence of the September 11 plot. After John Roberts, a unit chief in the Bureau's Office of Professional Responsibility, discussed the FBI's shortcomings with "60 Minutes" in October 2002, he was verbally disciplined by his supervisor. And other whistleblowers have faced retaliation for discussing everything from lapses in the Oklahoma City bombing case to evidence theft by Bureau agents at Ground Zero. But the Edmonds case is the most ham-handed attempt to stifle damaging evidence so far--not only because reclassification of such publicly available information is next to impossible, but because the government violated its own rules in order to do it.

Edmonds says that a Turkish woman hired by the FBI as a translator, Can Dickerson, asked to translate all the documents pertaining to a particular foreign organization--the name of which has always been classified--that was under investigation by the FBI. According to Edmonds, Dickerson then tried to recruit her into that same organization. Edmonds says she reported Dickerson to her supervisor but was told to drop it. Soon after, the FBI terminated Edmonds's contract, citing "disruptiveness." Nevertheless, when Bureau officials sat down with Senate staffers a few months later, they verified most of Edmonds's claims--even though, according to a follow-up letter from Grassley and Leahy to the Bureau, "the FBI downplayed the importance of this matter."

So why, two years later, is the Bureau so eager to suppress information that it had previously said was unimportant? In his meeting with the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, Mueller asserted the "mosaic theory" of information, in which a piece of data is innocuous alone but, when combined with others, becomes potent. "There are other areas of information that have come out that, put together with that information, may bear on national security," he said.

But, even if Mueller is correct, what is the purpose of reclassifying information that everyone already knows? Most likely it is an attempt to suppress Edmonds's damaging claims against the Bureau. Although the Justice Department has sought to quash Edmonds's wrongful termination suit by invoking the State Secrets Privilege--a rarely used but powerful government tool that allows lawsuits to be dismissed if their continuation would severely damage the national interest--doing so only protects the government in the courts; it does nothing to prevent Congress or 9/11 Commissioners (who have taken closed-door testimony from Edmonds on the FBI's translation failures) from digging deeper. But, by reclassifying information pertaining to Edmonds, the Justice Department can hinder further congressional or public investigation. For instance, until last week, both Grassley and Leahy had been quite vocal in their aggressive criticism of the FBI's handling of the case; after the reclassification, the best they can do is send Mueller classified letters.

Indeed, the reclassification will take the Edmonds matter out of the public eye. "[Justice Department officials want to] keep it out of the press," says Steven Aftergood, an analyst with the Federation of American Scientists. "They [want to] make the whole controversy much more manageable." And, while the order might not prevent Edmonds from talking, it does stop others from supporting her claims. "It prevents the woman from being able to document what she's alleging," says John Prados, an analyst with the National Security Archive. "Absent this action, it's theoretically possible that a congressional staffer could come forward and support Sibel Edmonds's testimony." By isolating Edmonds, what was once a gathering controversy is reduced to a case of she-said, Bureau-said, making it much easier for the FBI to ignore the whole thing.

Even worse, the way the Justice Department reclassified the Edmonds information appears to have violated its own rules. According to William Leonard, director of the National Archives' Information Security Oversight Office (isoo), a reclassification request for publicly available information requires the government to meet three standards: One, that the request is made by the head or deputy head of an agency; two, that the information being reclassified is reasonably recoverable; and three, that the office requesting reclassification inform Leonard and the isoo, which must ensure that the first two standards have been met. In this instance, the Justice Department met only one of the three requirements for reclassification (the move was, at least, ordered by Attorney General John Ashcroft). It has so far failed to inform the isoo; in fact, Leonard says the first he heard of the effort was in a New York Times article last week. "No agency has notified me that it has exercised a reclassification," he says. Moreover, even if it had tried (and it didn't), it's unlikely that Justice could prove to the isoo that the information was recoverable: Despite being removed from the Senate websites, the Grassley-Leahy letters are still available online, either through Google caches, the Lexis-Nexis database, or websites that downloaded them when they were still available. "If it's on the Web," says Leonard, "it is not reasonably recoverable."

Ultimately, some people believe the Justice Department's reclassification of the Edmonds information could backfire. "It bolsters her credibility," says Aftergood. "If she were a crank making wild allegations about 9/11, she would be ignored. But, when the attorney general starts throwing his weight around to keep her quiet, you have to wonder what it is she knows." But others aren't so sanguine. "To me it's the typical response," says Louis Clark, president of the Government Accountability Project. "The response is to keep a lid on all the information that might be embarrassing to the FBI."

And, so far, no one has officially tried to lift that lid. Though he raised the topic with Mueller, Grassley readily complied with the reclassification order, as did Leahy. isoo's Leonard says he has requested an explanation from Ashcroft but has yet to receive a response. Even more baffling in this era of September 11 investigations, only one newspaper, The New York Times, covered the decision. Indeed, the silencing of Edmonds has been remarkably silent. Which is probably just what the FBI was counting on in the first place.

This article originally ran in the June 7, 2004, issue of the magazine.