Ex-FBI translator takes case to Supreme Court

A former FBI translator who was fired after alleging security breaches and possible espionage within the bureau's Washington field office has taken her case to the Supreme Court.

Lawyers for Sibel Edmonds filed a petition last week asking the Supreme Court to review her case. Edmonds was hired by the FBI as a contract linguist immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to translate backlogged material, such as electronic wiretaps.

But she was fired in March 2002 after alleging security breaches, mismanagement and possible espionage. She sued the Justice Department, but Attorney General John Aschroft invoked the state secrets privilege in the case, which has prevented her from publicly discussing the matter.

Edmonds' lawsuit was dismissed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in May, prompting a petition to the Supreme Court. Her lawyers include the American Civil Liberties Union and Mark Zaid of Krieger and Zaid, PLLC.

The petition asks the Supreme Court "to provide guidance to the lower courts about the proper scope and application of the state secrets privilege, and to prevent further misuse of the privilege to dismiss lawsuits at the pleading stage."

"The outcome in Edmonds' case could significantly impact the government's ability to rely on secrecy to avoid accountability in future cases," ACLU officials said.

The petition also asks the court to clarify that the press and public may not be excluded from court proceedings in civil cases without just cause. The appeals court closed the May proceedings to the public, despite motions to open the courtroom filed by several news organizations.

Edmonds said a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court would allow her to resume her case in federal court and depose witnesses.

"If they say the government was wrong in invoking [state secrets privilege] and it was not appropriate, then we can go back to the lower court and start the case again," she said. "We have never had our day in court."

According to the petition, Edmonds alleges that numerous communications in the FBI's translation unit had been intentionally left untranslated or mistranslated, jeopardizing intelligence and law enforcement investigations related to the 9/11 attacks and other cases.

"Ms. Edmonds also reported concerns of potential espionage within the translation unit," the petition states. "Specifically, she reported that a fellow employee who had been granted a security clearance had past and ongoing associations with one or more targets of an ongoing FBI investigation and was apparently leaking information to those targets; that the same employee had improperly instructed Ms. Edmonds and another employee not to listen to or translate certain FBI wiretaps concerning those targets; and that the employee in question had threatened the lives and safety of Ms. Edmonds and a member of her family who resided in a foreign country. Finally, Ms. Edmonds reported that FBI managers had failed to take corrective action in response to her concerns, but had instead retaliated against her."

The Justice Department's inspector general issued a summary report in January concluding that the FBI failed to properly investigate charges made by Edmonds. The report also concluded that the FBI fired Edmonds mainly for bringing forth the accusations. Edmonds has said that information in her case would lead to criminal prosecutions if aggressively pursued.

A story in the September 2005 issue of Vanity Fair magazine details parts of Edmonds' case.

The FBI declined to comment because the matter involves pending litigation.

Edmonds said she expects several briefs to be filed in the next month in support of her case. She said those briefs will come from groups of family members of 9/11 victims, public interest organizations and media outlets.

Edmonds has also formed the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition, comprised of former and current government officials. She said the group is incorporating as a 501c4 organization, a designation that allows it to lobby and participate in electoral politics.

The group also is raising money to run advertisements listing the names, positions and salaries of government officials accused of wrongdoing. Edmonds said the ads likely will begin to run in October.

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