- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2004

The federal government’s secrecy watchdog is conducting an inquiry into whether Attorney General John Ashcroft acted properly in classifying information relating to a lawsuit brought by a whistleblower from the FBI’s translation unit.

Sibel Edmonds, an FBI contract translator who reported mismanagement, inefficiency and serious security problems, is suing the Justice Department for violating her First Amendment rights by quashing her claims against them with the rarely invoked “state secrets privilege.”

Her case relates to the way the translation unit in the bureau’s Washington field office was run immediately after the September 11 attacks. Mrs. Edmonds has made charges about incompetence, lax internal security and deliberate efforts to frustrate the unit’s work — some of which have been acknowledged as true by the FBI.

In April, the court hearing her lawsuit ordered the FBI to turn over any unclassified documents or other information it had relating to her case, specifically to matters that had been briefed to members of Congress and their staffs at two meetings in 2002.

About two weeks after the order was made, the staffers received an e-mail from one of their colleagues, explaining that the FBI “now considers some of the information contained in [those] briefings to be classified.”

The briefings dealt in detail with Mrs. Edmonds’ accusations: that many of those hired to work in the unit could barely speak English; that they left secure laptop computers laying around while they went to lunch; that they took classified material home with them; and — even more disturbing — that some had undeclared contacts with foreign organizations that were under surveillance.

Bureau officials at the briefings “admitted most of the facts [about Mrs. Edmonds’ accusations] but denied the conclusions,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and a longtime critic of the FBI.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing June 8, Mr. Ashcroft told lawmakers that he had signed off on the decision personally.

“If there is spilled milk and there is no damage done, if you can re-collect it and put it back in the jar, you’re better off than saying, ‘Well, it’s spilled, no damage has been done, we might as well wait until damage is done.’”

J. William Leonard, head of the Information Security Oversight Office, the government’s secrecy watchdog, said that the FBI was not retrospectively classifying or re-classifying any information.

“What seems to have happened,” he said, was that “well-meaning [FBI officials] attempted to be responsive to congressional requests for information, by ‘talking around’ what was classified. In doing so, they appear to have inadvertently made an unauthorized disclosure of classified information.”

But Mark Zaid, Mrs. Edmonds’ attorney, said officials had not behaved as if the contents of the briefings were classified until they needed to do so in order to quash his client’s lawsuit.

“The content of those briefings was widely disseminated to the media, it was referred to repeatedly in congressional correspondence. It was discussed by senior FBI officials in meetings with Edmonds’ attorneys and others, none of whom had security clearances,” he said. “At no time was there any indication that this information was classified, until the judge ordered them to turn it over.

“This is all about the lawsuit,” Mr. Zaid concluded. “It is the [Justice] Department’s lawyers scrambling to try and gain a litigation advantage.”

An FBI spokesman, Joe Parrish, declined to comment, saying the issue involved both classified material and an ongoing lawsuit.

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