Gagged by Ashcroft: Sibel Edmond’s story still untold


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Mary Jacoby
June 14, 2004 8:32pm (UTC)

Sibel Edmonds, the FBI translator who was fired in 2002 after complaining about bureau incompetence, stood with Vietnam-era whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg outside the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., Monday morning to denounce government secrecy.

The impetus for the gathering was supposed to have been a hearing before U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton on whether Edmonds would be allowed to testify in a lawsuit filed by families of 9/11 victims who accused members of the Saudi royal family of financing the attacks. Attorney General John Ashcroft has sought to block Edmonds' testimony as a danger to national security. The judge canceled the hearing without explanation, but Edmonds and Ellsberg went ahead with their news conference.

Age has softened Ellsberg's voice, but he is still angry. The former Defense Department official who leaked the Pentagon Papers recounted his history with Richard Nixon's attorney general, the late John Mitchell, who authorized the "dirty tricks" campaign that, among other excesses, resulted in a break-in of the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist to look for dirt on the war critic.

Ellsberg said he could not trust Attorney General John Ashcroft to expose the flaws of federal law enforcement. "So I rely on her judgment," he said, gesturing to Edmonds, a petite Turkish-American woman in a black suit with her dark brown hair swept up in a loose bun.

Edmonds told the gathered reporters and activists that Ashcroft is "worried about the truth, because truth will bring about accountability." Fluent in Farsi, Arabic and Turkish, she became an American citizen ten years ago. "I took a citizenship oath  to defend this country against all enemies, foreign and domestic," Edmonds said to applause.

Edmonds worked for the FBI for six months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks helping to translate a massive backlog of wiretaps. She claimed the FBI told her team to work more slowly, lest their efficiency undermine the bureau's attempts to leverage more money from Congress. She also claims a fellow translator tried to recruit her into one of the organizations that the FBI was investigating, but that FBI officials were uninterested in investigating a potential a mole was in their midst. The bureau fired her soon after, and in 2002 the Justice Department imposed a gag order on Edmonds.

Edmonds filed a wrongful termination lawsuit and aired her tale on "60 Minutes." Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, an FBI critic and long-time advocate of whistleblowers, has called her information "credible." But last month the Justice Department abruptly announced that all information it provided to congressional investigators about Edmonds was "re-classified," effectively silencing congressional critics, even though the details of the Edmonds case have long been in the public domain.

In February, she testified before staffers on the 9/11 Commission that contrary to the assertions of Bush administration officials, the FBI did have detailed information indicating terrorists planned to use airplanes in a major attack against the United States. President Bush's Aug. 6, 2001, daily intelligence briefing, recently declassified, indicated as much. But Edmonds hints at more explosive details while lamenting that the gag order prevents her from elaborating.

Standing behind Edmonds at the news conference was Doug Eyde, 40, a night-shift worker at a grocery store who responded to an email seeking a crowd for the event. Wearing sun glasses, a scraggly beard and a Che Guevara T-Shirt, Eyde was pressed into holding a sign that read, "Stop the 9/11 cover-up."

He said he finds Edmonds' accusations intriguing but frustrating. "I wish she would stop teasing us and tell us the full story. I'd like the same from Congress. If they can't say it publicly, they should just leak it to the press," he said.


Mary Jacoby

Mary Jacoby is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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