WASHINGTON, D.C.—The unsettling story of whistleblower Sibel Edmonds took another twist on Thursday, as the government continued its seemingly endless machinations to shut her up. The U.S. Court of Appeals here denied pleas to open the former FBI translator’s First Amendment case to the public, a day after taking the extraordinary step of ordering a secret hearing.
Edmonds was hired after 9-11 to help the woefully staffed FBI’s translation department with documents and wiretaps in such languages as Farsi and Turkish. She soon cried foul, saying the agency’s was far from acceptable and perhaps even dangerous to national security. She was fired in 2002.
Ever since, the government has been trying to silence her, even classifying an interview she did with 60 Minutes.
Oral arguments in her suit against the federal government were scheduled for this morning, but yesterday the clerk of the appeals court unexpectedly and suddenly announced the hearing would be closed. Only attorneys and Edmonds were allowed in.
No one thought the three-judge appeals court panel would be especially sympathetic to the Edmonds case. It consists of Douglas Ginsburg, who was once nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court by President Reagan. He withdrew after it was revealed he had smoked pot as a college student; he later joined the appeals court. Another member, David Sentelle, was chair of the three-judge panel that appointed Ken Starr to be the special prosecutor investigating Clinton. Karen LeCraft Henderson was appointed a federal judge during the Reagan period, then put on the appeals court by the elder President Bush.
In making a plea to open the Edmonds hearing, the ACLU noted appellate arguments normally are accessible to the public. “When the United States asked the Supreme Court to close part of the oral argument in the Pentagon Papers case—a case that involved classified information of the greatest sensitivity—that motion was denied,” the ACLU said. “Likewise, in an appeal in the ongoing prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui, an alleged conspirator in the September 11th terrorist plot, the court rejected the government’s move to close the entire hearing.”
Edmonds, an American citizen, was born in Iran and grew up in Turkey. She speaks Farsi, Turkish, and other languages of central Asia. She was hired by the FBI in the hectic aftermath of 9-11 to translate various top-secret materials collected by the bureau from wire taps, surveillance reports, interviews with agents, etc.
In that capacity she began observing the bureau’s bizarre, even surreal practices, including such things as sending people to Guantanamo to translate statements by prisoners who spoke Farsi. Only trouble was the translators weren’t speakers of Farsi, but were instead Kurds speaking a Turkish dialect. She stumbled across various mistranslations and interpreters who were not able to make accurate translations. Then she discovered someone was signing her initials to approve translations she never made. And she observed translations being doctored or blocked by the actions by one translator or another. She discovered one translator whose relative was working for an embassy which the FBI had under surveillance.
When Edmonds protested to her supervisors, she has said, the ignored her or told her off, at one point calling her “a whore.” Eventually she was fired by a supervisor who told Edmonds he’d look forward to meeting her again—in jail.
Taking her protests to Congress, she won support from the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who exchanged letters with the Justice Department’s Inspector General’s office, which said it was making an investigation. In the midst of all this, then attorney general John Ashcroft stepped in and threw down a gag order by invoking the arcane states secrets privilege, under which the government can classify whatever materials it wishes in the interests of national security. Last year, the Edmonds case was dismissed by a federal district court judge. The government had never even bothered to file an answer to her complaint.
The case that was argued this morning concerned a complaint by Edmonds that the government was denying her First Amendment rights. Only after she was fired did Edmonds go to the Congress. She is saying she played by the rules and was squashed by the government without cause or explanation. And when she went outside the official channel to reveal what was going on within the bureau, the government responded by classifying her previous attempts to speak out, including press accounts written before the classification came down. One of them was a 60 Minutes segment.
“The federal government is routinely retaliating against government employees who uncover weaknesses in our ability to prevent terrorist attacks or protect public safety,” said Ann Beeson, associate legal director of the ACLU. “From firing whistleblowers to using special privileges to cover up mistakes, the government is taking extreme steps to shield itself from political embarrassment while gambling with our safety.”
Additional reporting: Natalie Wittlin