By Chris Strohm
June 14, 2004Two government whistleblowers on Monday called on federal workers to come forward if they have information that could help investigations of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The request was made by Sibel Edmonds, a former FBI translator who alleges that the government knew more details about the 9/11 plot than it has admitted, and Daniel Ellsberg, a former Marine who leaked the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War to the media in 1971.
"If there are people right now who know either the same information that Sibel had and [believe] that it's wrongfully being withheld, or comparable information, then I believe that they should go to Congress, but also to the press and put that out even at great risk to their careers," said Ellsberg, who gave the Pentagon Papers to Congress and the media. "Many, many lives are at stake here, and it's well worth telling the truth, even at personal sacrifice."
Edmonds, a Turkish-American, worked in the FBI's Washington field office from Sept. 20, 2001, to March 2002 as a contract linguist. She was given top-secret security clearance and hired to retranslate material that was collected prior to Sept. 11 to determine if anything was missed in the translations relating to the plot. She concluded that documents clearly showed that the 9/11 hijackers were in the country and plotting to use airplanes as missiles to carry out an attack in a major city. She said documents also included information relating to terrorist financial activities.
On Oct. 18, 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft asserted "state secrets privilege," essentially placing a gag order on Edmonds that prevents her from discussing what she did or what information she obtained. The government argued that Edmonds' information "would cause serious damage to the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States."
Edmonds has since filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department and FBI to lift the gag order.
Last month, Ashcroft took the unusual step of retroactively classifying information that his department gave to Congress nearly two years ago regarding Edmonds. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called the move "ludicrous," because so much information has already been distributed in the public domain through thousands of Web sites.
Edmonds has testified in private before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the federal 9/11 commission. That panel will hold its final public hearings this week, and is scheduled to issue a comprehensive report at the end of July on the how the attacks occurred and how future attacks can be prevented.
The Justice Department has also prevented Edmonds from testifying in a class-action lawsuit over the Sept. 11 attacks. Earlier this year, she was subpoenaed by a group of Sept. 11 relatives and survivors who filed a civil suit against international banks and two members of the Saudi royal family for allegedly aiding al Qaeda.
Edmonds was scheduled to have a hearing on Monday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to determine if she could testify in the lawsuit. However, Judge Reggie Walton decided last week to postpone the hearing. A spokesman for Walton's office said the Justice Department submitted its argument on June 9 for why Edmonds should be prevented from testifying. The argument is under review. The spokesman said the hearing tentatively has been rescheduled for July 9.
Edmonds noted that her hearings have been postponed four times since the fall of 2002.
She said her testimony would help people have "a complete picture" of the terrorist attacks, especially with regard to what she called "semi-legitimate organizations."
"They would see the real picture of activities before 9/11 and the involvement of certain semi-legit organizations. I know many people automatically assume we're talking about only religious or charity organizations, but it goes way beyond that," she said.
"I cannot specifically say what type," she added. "However, I can say that [the] investigations involve when certain money laundering and intelligence activities and drug activities converge with terrorist activities. Terrorists want to buy information, too, and they have known connections to certain drug-related [groups]."
The Justice Department refused to comment on any matters related to Edmonds' case.
The Justice Department's inspector general's office began investigating Edmonds' case in the summer of 2002. IG spokesman Paul Martin said the investigation would be completed "within the next several weeks." He could not be more specific. Once completed, the results will be reviewed by the FBI to determine what material should be classified.
Edmonds said she wants to testify publicly, under oath, about what she knows, and she hopes that other people in the Justice Department will come forward.
"First of all, their duty is first to the country, not their loyalty to a certain organization or a bureau," she said. "Number two, they would be doing it not only for the public; they would be doing it for themselves because these issues involve all of us."
Ellsberg said he faced a similar dilemma when he decided to come forward with information about the Vietnam War.
"All citizens have to choose in the merits of this case," he said. "Do I believe Attorney General John Ashcroft's judgment of what comprises national security and what information the public must not know? Or do I rely on the judgment of a very intelligent and conscientious government employee at the time, experienced in dealing with classified materials and who had been trusted with large amounts of highly sensitive material?"
By Chris Strohm
June 14, 2004