A former FBI translator told the 9/11 commission that the bureau had detailed information well before Sept. 11, 2001, that terrorists were likely to attack the U.S. with airplanes.
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By Eric Boehlert, Salon
March 26, 2004 | A former FBI wiretap translator with top-secret security clearance, who has been called “very credible” by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has told Salon she recently testified to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States that the FBI had detailed information prior to Sept. 11, 2001, that a terrorist attack involving airplanes was being plotted.
Referring to the Homeland Security Department’s color-coded warnings instituted in the wake of 9/11, the former translator, Sibel Edmonds, told Salon, “We should have had orange or red-type of alert in June or July of 2001. There was that much information available.” Edmonds is offended by the Bush White House claim that it lacked foreknowledge of the kind of attacks made by al-Qaida on 9/11. “Especially after reading National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice [Washington Post Op-Ed on March 22] where she said, we had no specific information whatsoever of domestic threat or that they might use airplanes. That’s an outrageous lie. And documents can prove it’s a lie.”
Edmonds’ charge comes when the Bush White House is trying to fend off former counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke’s testimony that it did not take serious measures to combat the threat of Islamic terrorism, and al-Qaida specifically, in the months leading up to 9/11.
Edmonds, who is Turkish-American, is a 10-year U.S. citizen who has passed a polygraph examination conducted by FBI investigators. She speaks fluent Farsi, Arabic and Turkish and worked part-time for the FBI, making $32 an hour for six months, beginning Sept. 20, 2001. She was assigned to the FBI’s investigation into Sept. 11 attacks and other counterterrorism and counterintelligence cases, where she translated reams of documents seized by agents who, for the previous year, had been rounding up suspected terrorists.
She says those tapes, often connected to terrorism, money laundering or other criminal activity, provide evidence that should have made apparent that an al- Qaida plot was in the works. Edmonds cannot talk in detail about the tapes publicly because she’s been under a Justice Department gag order since 2002.
“President Bush said they had no specific information about Sept. 11, and that’s accurate,” says Edmonds. “But there was specific information about use of airplanes, that an attack was on the way two or three months beforehand and that several people were already in the country by May of 2001. They should’ve alerted the people to the threat we’re facing.”
Edmonds testified before 9/11 commission staffers in February for more than three hours, providing detailed information about FBI investigations, documents and dates. This week Edmonds attended the commission hearings and plans to return in April when FBI Director Robert Mueller is scheduled to testify. “I’m hoping the commission asks him real questions — like, in April 2001, did an FBI field office receive legitimate information indicating the use of airplanes for an attack on major cities? And is it true that through an FBI informant, who’d been used [by the Bureau] for 10 years, did you get information about specific terrorist plans and specific cells in this country? He couldn’t say no,” she insists.
Edmonds first made headlines in 2002 when she blew the whistle on the FBI’s translation department, which was suddenly thrown into the spotlight as investigators clamored for original terrorist-related information, often in Arabic. Edmonds made several reports of serious misconduct, security lapses and gross incompetence in the FBI translations unit, including supervisors who told translators to work slowly during the crucial post-9/11 period to ensure the agency would get more funds for its next annual budget. As a result of her reports, Edmonds says she was harassed at the FBI. She was fired in March 2002.
Litigation followed, and in October 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to dismiss the Edmonds case, taking the extraordinary step of invoking the rarely used state secrets privilege in order “to protect the foreign policy and national security interests of the United States.” Ashcroft’s move was made at the request of Mueller.
During a 2002 segment on “60 Minutes” exploring Edmonds’ initial charges of FBI internal abuses, Sen. Grassley was asked if Edmonds is credible. “She’s credible and the reason I feel she’s very credible is because people within the FBI have corroborated a lot of her story,” he said.
The Inspector General’s office then launched an investigation into Edmonds’ charges and told her to expect a finding in the fall of 2002. The report has yet to be released. Edmonds suspects if it is ever publicly released Ashcroft will demand that it be immediately classified. “They’re pushing everything under the blanket of secrecy,” she says.
That’s why she felt it was so important to appear before the 9/11 commission: “It’s the only hope I have left to get this issue added to the public domain.”
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About the writer
Eric Boehlert is a senior writer at Salon.