Sibel Edmonds’ new book, “Classified Woman,” is like an FBI file on the FBI, only without the incompetence.
The experiences she recounts resemble K.’s trip to the castle, as told by Franz Kafka, only without the pleasantness and humanity.
I’ve read a million reviews of nonfiction books about our government that referred to them as “page-turners” and “gripping dramas,” but I had never read a book that actually fit that description until now.
The F.B.I., the Justice Department, the White House, the Congress, the courts, the media, and the nonprofit industrial complex put Sibel Edmonds through hell. This book is her triumph over it all, and part of her contribution toward fixing the problems she uncovered and lived through.
Edmonds took a job as a translator at the FBI shortly after 9-11. She considered it her duty. Her goal was to prevent any more terrorist attacks. That’s where her thinking was at the time, although it has now changed dramatically. It’s rarely the people who sign up for a paycheck and health care who end up resisting or blowing a whistle.
Edmonds found at the FBI translation unit almost entirely two types of people. The first group was corrupt sociopaths, foreign spies, cheats and schemers indifferent to, or working against, U.S. national security. The second group was fearful bureaucrats unwilling to make waves. The ordinary competent person with good intentions who risks their job to “say something if you see something” is the rarest commodity. Hence the elite category that Edmonds found herself almost alone in: whistleblowers.
Reams of documents and audio files from before 9-11 had never been translated. Many more had never been competently or honestly translated. One afternoon in October 2001, Edmonds was asked to translate verbatim an audio file from July 2001 that had only been translated in summary form. She discovered that it contained a discussion of skyscraper construction, and in a section from September 12, a celebration of a successful mission. There was also discussion of possible future attacks. Edmonds was eager to inform the agents involved, but her supervisor, Mike Feghali, immediately put a halt to the project.
Two other translators, Behrooz Sarshar and Amin (no last name given), told Edmonds this was typical. They told her about an Iranian informant, a former head of SAVAK, the Iranian “intelligence” agency, who had been hired by the FBI in the early 1990s. He had warned these two interpreters in person in April 2001 of Osama bin Laden planning attacks on U.S. cities with airplanes, and had warned that some of the plotters were already in the United States. Sarshar and Amin had submitted a report marked VERY URGENT to Special Agent in Charge Thomas Frields, to no apparent effect. In the end of June they’d again met with the same informant and interpreted for FBI agents meeting with him. He’d emphatically warned that the attack would come within the next two months and urged them to tell the White House and the CIA. But the FBI agents, when pressed on this, told their interpreters that Frields was obliged to report everything, so the White House and other agencies no doubt already knew.
One has to wonder what U.S. public opinion would make of an Iranian having tried to prevent 9-11.
Next, a French translator named Mariana informed Edmonds that in late June 2001, French intelligence had contacted the FBI with a warning of the upcoming attacks by airplanes. The French even provided names of suspects. The translator had been sent to France, and believed her report had made it to both FBI headquarters and the White House.
Edmonds translated other materials that involved the selling of U.S. nuclear information to foreigners and spotted a connection to a previous case involving the purchase of such information. The FBI, under pressure from the State Department, Edmonds writes, prevented her from notifying the FBI field offices involved. Edmonds has testified in a court deposition, naming as part of a broad criminal conspiracy Representatives Dennis Hastert, Dan Burton, Roy Blunt, Bob Livingston, Stephen Solarz, and Tom Lantos, and the following high-ranking U.S. government officials: Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, and Marc Grossman.
When Edmonds was hired, she was the only fully qualified Turkish translator, and this remained the case. In November 2001, a woman named Melek Can Dickerson (referred to as “Jan”) was hired. She did not score well on the English proficiency test, and so was not qualified to sign off on translations, as Edmonds was. Melek’s husband Doug Dickerson worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency under the procurement logistics division at the Pentagon dealing with Turkey and Central Asia, and for the Office of Special Plans overseeing Central Asian policy. This couple attempted to recruit Edmonds and her husband into the American Turkish Council and the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, offering large financial benefits. But these were organizations that the FBI was monitoring. Edmonds reported the Dickersons’ proposal to Feghali, who dismissed it.
Then Edmonds discovered that Jan Dickerson had been forging her (Edmonds’) signature on translations, with Feghali’s approval. Then Edmonds’ colleagues told her about Jan taking files out of other translators’ desks and carrying them out of the building. Dickerson attempted to control the translation of all material from particular individuals. Dennis Saccher, who was above Feghali, discovered that Jan was marking every communication from one important person as being not important for translation. Saccher attempted to address the matter but was shut down by Feghali, by another supervisor named Stephanie Bryan, and by the head of “counterintelligence” for the FBI who said that the Pentagon, White House, State Department, and Congress would not allow an investigation.
Had Edmonds understood the truth of that statement, it might have saved her years of frustration and stress, but it would have denied us the bulk of the revelations in her book. Dickerson threatened Edmonds’ life and those of her family. Edmonds lost her job, her reputation, her friends, and contact with most of her family members. She watched Congress cave in to the President. She watched the government protect the Dickersons by allowing them to flee the country. She listened to Congressman Henry Waxman and others in 2005 and 2006 promise a full investigation if the Democrats won a majority, a promise that was immediately broken when the Democrats took control of Congress in 2007. Edmonds was smeared in the media, and her story widely ignored when media outlets got parts of it right. The Justice Department claimed “States Secrets” and maneuvered for a cooperative judge (Reggie Walton) to have cases filed by Edmonds dismissed. The government classified as secret all materials related to Edmonds’ case including what was already public. The Justice Department issued a gag order to the entire Congress.
And Congress bent over and shouted “Thank you, sir, may I have another?”
As less confrontational approaches failed, Edmonds became increasingly an activist and an independent media participant and creator. Her story and others she was familiar with were rejected and avoided by the 9-11 Commission. She worked with angry 9-11 widows and with other whistleblowers to expose the failures of that commission. Disgusted with whistleblower support groups that only offered to help her when she was in the news and never when she needed help most desperately, Edmonds started her own group, made up of whistleblowers, called the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition. She started her own website called Boiling Frogs Post.
When an unclassified version of a report on Edmonds’ case by the Justice Department’s Inspector General was finally released, it vindicated her.
Coleen Rowley, another FBI whistleblower, one who was honored as a Time magazine person of the year along with two others, told me:
What I find so remarkable is Sibel’s persistence in trying every avenue and possible outlet in trying to get the truth out. When going up the chain of command in the executive branch and Inspector General internal mechanisms for investigating fraud, waste, and abuse went nowhere, she sought judicial remedy by filing lawsuits only to be improperly gagged by ‘state secrecy privilege’. Along the way she also sought congressional assistance, testified to the 9-11 Commission, and engaged with various media and other non-governmental organizations. It’s somewhat ironic that Sibel herself demonstrated such enormous energy and passion throughout this decade quite the opposite of the ‘boiling frog’ idiom she uses for her website as a warning to others. If her book can inspire readers to summon even 1/100th of the determination and resolve she has modeled, there’s hope for us!
Yet, thus far, no branch of our government has lifted its little finger to fix the problem of secrecy and the corruption it breeds, which Edmonds argues has grown far worse under President Obama. That’s why this book should be spread far and wide, and read aloud to our misrepresentatives in Congress if necessary. This book is a masterpiece that reveals both the details and the broader pattern of corruption and unaccountability in Washington, D.C. Edmonds has not exposed bad apples, but a rotten barrel of toxic waste that will sooner or later infect us all — not just the whistleblowers like Sibel and the thousands of people in our government who see something and dare not say something for fear that we will not have their back.
Let’s have their back.