By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Details of a Florida drug case may well shed light on the claims of an FBI translator who says the agency covered up evidence warning of the 9-11 attack.
Sibel Edmonds, the translator, said in an interview Monday with the Voice that the Florida case illustrates the issues and evidence she has been trying to make public for two years. Edmonds claimed to have translated testimony in criminal and counter-intelligence cases involving different FBI field offices, going back into the late 1990s. Much of this involved tracking money, she said.
Among the Farsi translators working for the FBI, she said, it was common knowledge that a longtime, highly regarded FBI "asset" placed in Afghanistan told the agency in April 2001 that he had information from his contacts there that bin Laden was planning a major attack, involving the use of planes, in one or another of big American citiesChicago, Los Angeles, and New York among them. The agents who took down the information from the spy wrote up reports and sent them to their superiors. That was the last the agents heard of the matter.
Additional reporting: Oorlagh George and Alicia Ng
Edmonds said she had heard the details of the Afghan asset story in an unclassified meeting at the Capitol, but she cannot talk about the specifics because of a Justice Department gag order that classifies as secret what she has to say.
She said, however, that "there are a lot of activities in the U.S. A lot of money . . . and these activities involve money laundering, drugs, a support network for terrorism . . . people in high places . . . [people] in the political arena."
Cybercast News Service (cnsnews.com), part of the conservative watchdog Media Research Center, reports that Mehrzad Arbane, an Iranian convicted of drug smuggling and suspected of money laundering and smuggling people from the Middle East into the U.S., told an associate who had become a government informant in October 2001 that he "may have smuggled two of the hijackers who flew planes into the towers in New York on September 11, 2001." Arbane was convicted May 13 in a Florida federal court of importing cocaine. He is expected to stand trial in New York for harboring illegal aliens, including two from Iran.
Jairo Velez, "well-known" for smuggling cocaine from Mexico and Colombia into the U.S., met Arbane in 1999, and the two went into business smuggling cocaine, according to court documents obtained by cnsnews.com. But two years later, Velez, spooked because Arbane had told him of having possibly transported the hijackers, became a government informant, providing the information used by prosecutors in their case against Arbane, according to cnsnews.com.
Whether the U.S. is tracing the connections between Arbane and the hijackers is not known. However, Ecuador is one of the countries from which Arbane is believed to have operated, and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told a House Foreign Operations appropriations subcommittee in April 2002 that along the border between Ecuador and Colombia, "we have got . . . a bit of a problem with Al Qaeda itself and some Hezbollah elements." Armitage added, "Frankly we are afraid as we squeeze Colombia, with hopefully the assistance and support of the Congress, that like a balloon, some of the problems might balloon out in other areas. We want to do what we can to try to keep Ecuador from ballooning out."
Most of the government's efforts to stop terrorists from entering the country are focused on airports and ports. Using drug dealers to smuggle terrorists adds a new dimension to the problem. Drug sales such as the trade in opium from Afghanistan are often used to help finance terrorist groups. Dealers have long been successful in confounding narcs, and it would be difficult if not impossible to ever know whether any terrorists they transported got into the country. Ironically, our victory in Afghanistan has led to a boom in opium sellingthe Taliban had slowed the growing and harvesting of poppies.
Edmonds can't tell what she may know because Attorney General John Ashcroft recently invoked an arcane law to make her statements "classified"including previously public statements and journalism quoting her on the case.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week, Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa summarized the Edmonds case in questioning FBI director Robert Mueller: "I would also like to, on a second point, figure out why the FBI is going back in time and classifying some pretty basic information that's already in the public sector in regard to classification of information that we have received in Congress from a whistle-blower, Sibel Edmonds. We have, for instance, an e-mail sent out by the chairman's office last week saying that the FBI is classifying two-year-old information that the committee got in two previous briefings. Ms. Edmonds worked for the FBI as a translator and was fired after she reported problems. As part of the committee's legitimate oversight, we looked into that. The e-mail I have is right here. And so I'm very alarmed with the after-the-fact classification. On the one hand, I think it's ludicrous, because I understand that almost all of this information's in the public domain, and has been very widely available. On the other hand, this classification is very serious, because it seems like the FBI would be attempting to put a gag order on Congress."
Grassley added, "I don't think this is really about national security. If it were, the FBI would have done this a very long time ago. And in fact, you'd be trying to get information back that's already been given to us about Ms. Edmonds."