The Department of Justice has abandoned its argument that charges made by a fired FBI translator are secret, paving the way for a court case involving charges of incompetence, poor security and possible espionage in the translation unit of the bureau’s Washington field office.
At issue are accusations by Sibel Edmonds, a contract translator for the FBI hired in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Mrs. Edmonds, fluent in Turkish and in the Farsi language spoken in Iran, reported that many of those hired to work in the unit barely could speak English; that they left secure laptop computers lying around while they went to lunch; that they took classified material home; and that one co-worker had undeclared contacts with a foreign organization that was under FBI surveillance.
She said bureau operations — including counterterrorism — were compromised as a result.
Mrs. Edmonds is suing the FBI, saying she was fired for bringing to light these problems — which have been identified by several inquiries as significant contributing factors to the success of the September 11 plot.
The FBI repeatedly has tried to have her lawsuit thrown out, saying it cannot be heard without jeopardizing national security.
In two unclassified briefings for congressional staff in June and July 2002, senior FBI officials acknowledged the truth of a number of Mrs. Edmonds’ accusations, including those against co-worker Melek Can Dickerson, who had worked for an organization that was the target of surveillance in a counterintelligence probe until she joined the bureau in October 2001
Sens. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, and Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, wrote letters laying out Mrs. Edmonds’ charges to the Department of Justice inspector general. Those letters were made public by the senators.
In April, in response to a court request to produce the documents on which those briefings were based, the FBI said it regarded much of the material discussed there as classified and asserted the rarely used “state secrets privilege” to say Mrs. Edmonds’ case could not be heard.
“The timing of this strongly suggests that it was a litigation strategy,” said Michael Kirkpatrick, an attorney with the watchdog Public Citizen, who sued the FBI to obtain the release of the documents. “There was never any indication that this information was secret until the court ordered it handed over. This was done to gain a litigation advantage [for the department] and to shield them from embarrassment and congressional scrutiny.”
Last week, the FBI withdrew its claim about the congressional briefings.
“We have stated that the information in those [letters from Mr. Leahy and Mr. Grassley] is … not classified,” Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said yesterday.
He declined to say what effect this might have on the department’s assertion of the “state secrets privilege,” but added that the department’s attorneys tomorrowwould be filing papers in the case that might make its position clearer.
But the American Civil Liberties Union, which has since joined Mrs. Edmonds’ case, said the collapse of the claim that the briefings were secret was a huge blow to the Justice Department’s efforts to keep the case out of court.
“I do not see how they can continue to claim with a straight face that this case cannot go forward now that so much information about her allegations is in the public domain,” ACLU attorney Ann Beeson said.