June 21, 2002

Mystery spies outed by FBI whistleblower


In the following column, I wrote about Sibel Edmonds, a wiretap translator formerly employed by the FBI who has stepped forward with allegations about infiltration of the FBI by a mysterious "Middle Eastern country." Citing "a trusted source," I wrote:

"According to his Justice Department sources, the mysterious "Middle Eastern country" the [Washington] Post couldn't name for reasons of ‘national security’ is indeed Israel."

I am now informed – by this same source – that the country in question may not be Israel.

While the column is not completely invalidated by this backtracking on the part of my source, it is nevertheless important to make clear that there is no solid evidence that Israel is indeed the country referred to in the Washington Post piece. I regret the error, and apologize to my readers.

The US government can be compared to a woman with a horribly disfigured – indeed, a downright grotesque – face, who, nonetheless, manages to hide her increasingly ugly mug with such an array of near-miraculous cosmetics, roseate lighting, and diversionary tactics that the casual observer is fooled into beholding what he believes is a great beauty. But every once in a great while the mask slips at a moment when the lighting is cruelly revealing, and we get a glimpse of the horror that lurks beneath. In the wake of 9/11, federal law enforcement agencies have indeed been seen in a new – and especially cruel – light. Where were they when Osama bin Laden and fellow ghouls were plotting the destruction of the WTC and the Pentagon right here under our noses? The picture that has emerged, at least up until very recently, is one of incompetence on the level of the Keystone Kops, a tragi-comedy of errors – but now, it appears, that is the very least of it….

The mask is slipping badly, now, and the spotlight is shining brightly, revealing not just stupidity, bureaucratic ineptitude, and inter-departmental competition, but also – treason. For nothing less than treason is the reason yet another FBI whistle-blower is making headlines with revelations that make Coleen Rowley's charges of high-level obstructionism in the Zacarias Moussaoui case look relatively innocuous. "2 FBI Whistle-Blowers Allege Lax Security, Possible Espionage," the Washington Post headline modestly avers, but that is putting it rather too mildly. Not since Whittaker Chambers exposed a Stalinist nest high in the topmost branches of the US government has the light been shone on such a deep – and dangerous – penetration of the nation's high security innards. Sibel Edmonds, 32, a former wiretap translator in the FBI's Washington field office, has stepped forward with a stunning narrative of official obstructionism and high-level espionage that breaks down into four stunning accusations:

1) One of her fellow FBI translators, a so-far-unidentified woman, "belonged to the Middle Eastern organization whose taped conversations she had been translating for FBI counterintelligence agents," according to the Post. "'This person told us she worked for our target organization,'" Edmonds says. "These are the people we are targeting, monitoring." This other translator also met with "a foreign official subject to the surveillance. Furthermore, says Edmonds, this woman (and her husband, a military officer) "tried to recruit her to join the targeted foreign group."

2) As Edmonds wrote in a March letter to the inspector general's office: "Investigations are being compromised. Incorrect or misleading translations are being sent to agents in the field. Translations are being blocked and circumvented."

3) This mysterious "Middle Eastern organization" had a definite preference insofar as how the FBI's wiretaps were translated – and by whom. Edmonds says that the woman presented her with "a list dividing up individuals whose phone lines were being secretly tapped: Under the plan, the woman would translate conversations of her former co-workers in the target organization, and Edmonds would handle other phone calls." When Edmonds refused, "the woman told her that her lack of cooperation could put her family in danger."

4) When she went to her bosses with this information, Edmonds – instead of being thanked, and given a medal – was summarily fired for being "disruptive."

One has to ask: "disruptive" of what? The spy nest ensconced so firmly in the upper reaches of US "law enforcement"?

Before going any further, let's clear up the matter of this mysterious "Middle Eastern organization" that takes such an active interest in – and apparently has such an all-pervasive influence over – the internal workings of our very own FBI. "Officials asked that the name of the target group not be revealed for national security reasons," the Post reports, yet enough clues are buried – and not very deeply – throughout this story by James V. Grimaldi that we can narrow the possible suspects to a considerable degree. While Edmonds is so far refusing to identify this snake hiding amid the high grass of the FBI's Washington compound, the Post tells us:

"She is a 33-year-old U.S. citizen whose native country is home to the target group. Both Edmonds and the other translator are US citizens who trace their ethnicity to the same Middle Eastern country."

A friend with access to Lexis-Nexis – hey, we can't afford such bourgeois luxuries here at Antiwar.com! Whaddaya think this is – the Weekly Standard? – informs me that there is indeed a Sibel Edmonds, 33, of Northern Virginia, formerly Sibel Ganiz or Sibel Deniz, the latter a Turkish name, although Sibel is perhaps Jewish or Armenian. Another bit of evidence: Edmonds says that the other translator, accompanied by the woman's husband, rushed over to Edmonds' home one Sunday and suggested that Edmonds "join the group." The Post reports the following recap of their conversation:

"'He said, 'Are you a member of the particular organization?' [He said,] 'It's a very good place to be a member. There are a lot of advantages of being with this organization and doing things together' – this is our targeted organization – 'and one of the greatest things about it is you can have an early, an unexpected, early retirement. And you will be totally set if you go to that specific country.'"

Okay, so that lets out Armenia as the foreign country involved in what is clearly an intelligence operation directed at the United States. I seriously doubt whether anyone could look forward to a luxurious retirement in threadbare Yerevan, unless that person is a singularly dirty (and bargain-hunting) old man. In any case, Armenian intelligence, I imagine, doesn't have that large a presence in the US.

The same consideration kind of lets out Turkey, which is not in much better economic shape: the recent economic crisis, which led to a radical devaluation of the currency (nearly 100%!), massive bankruptcies, and a precipitous fall in the average income, makes it seem even less inviting as a retirement home for compromised FBI agents.

There is, however, a third alternative, and that is the sole Middle Eastern country with a standard of living even remotely comparable to that found in the US. By a process of elimination, then, Israel seems the only possibility. Turkish intelligence is known for many things – torture, kidnapping, merciless pursuit of perceived enemies – but so far they seem to have refrained from carrying out their criminal activities on American soil. The Israelis, on the other hand, do indeed have a history of intelligence operations conducted in – and against – the US. What is more, these operations have recently been more visible than ever, as Carl Cameron revealed last year in a now-famous 4-part series broadcast by Fox News.

Cameron's report diagrammed a vast underground apparatus run by the Mossad, one that had penetrated US government "secure" communications, and might have had foreknowledge of the events of 9/11 – because it's quite possible they were watching the hijackers, shadowing Mohamed Atta and friends as they plotted and trained for The Day. A key part of Cameron's revelations are directly related to US government wiretaps, and, in Part III of his series, the intrepid Fox News reporter details the Israeli connection to the company with the exclusive contract to work on the technical aspects of these operations: Comverse-Infosys, now known as Verint.

Verint makes customized computers and software designed to cut into the system of circuits and switches that make up the nation's phone system in order to capture, store, and record wiretapped conversations, simultaneously sending them to government agents. The problem, however, is that the producers of this valuable tool have constant access to the computers and the information contained therein for "maintenance" purposes. This amounts to what many in law enforcement regard as a "back door" left wide open – specifically to the Israelis, who provide up to half of the company's research and development budget, and naturally works "closely" with them. The flawed security architecture of US intelligence gathering was specifically authorized by the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA. According to Cameron:

"Senior government officials have now told Fox News that while CALEA made wiretapping easier, it has led to a system that is seriously vulnerable to compromise,and may have undermined the whole wiretapping system. Indeed, Fox News has learned that Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller were both warned October 18th in a hand-delivered letter from 15 local, state and federal law enforcement officials, who complained that – quote – 'law enforcement's current electronic surveillance capabilities are less effective today than they were at the time CALEA was enacted.'"

A similar investigation conducted by Insight magazine reporters J. Michael Waller and Paul Rodriguez leads to the same Israeli "back door" connection to communications emanating from the National Security Agency, the Defense Department, the Justice Department, and other government agencies, up to and including the White House. The point is that the peculiar vulnerability of the US to its Middle Eastern "ally" was well-known and widely suspected well before 9/11, and Edmonds' charges of officially-tolerated espionage. As Newsmax reported last year:

"The penetration of Comverse reportedly allowed criminals to wiretap law enforcement communications in reverse and foil authorized wiretaps with advance warning. One major drug bust operation planned by the Los Angeles police was foiled by what now appear to be reverse wiretaps placed on law enforcement phones by the criminal spy ring."

That's how they discovered the giant leak in US wiretapping procedures: in Los Angeles, according to Carl Cameron. The Drug Enforcement Agency was tapping the phones of an Israeli-based "Ecstasy" drug ring, when suddenly the behavior of their quarry signaled that the DEA's own system of surveillance had been turned against it. The bad guys were listening in on their own wiretaps, and changing their plans accordingly, avoiding capture.

Cameron reported that "investigators within the DEA, INS and FBI have all told Fox News that to pursue or even suggest Israeli spying through Comverse [Verint] is considered career suicide." The dead on accuracy of this statement has been amply dramatized by the FBI career of Sibel Edmonds, which came to an abrupt end because she dared to raise the alarm against a spy operation that apparently enjoys some special immunity. This in spite of the FBI's admission that Edmonds was right about her co-worker. The Post reports:

"The FBI confirmed that Edmonds's coworker had been part of an organization that was a target of top-secret surveillance and that the same coworker had 'unreported contacts' with a foreign government official subject to the surveillance, according to a letter from the two senators to the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General. In addition, the linguist failed to translate two communications from the targeted foreign government official, the letter said."

Edmonds' own bosses didn't want to hear it: instead of investigating, they fired her. So Edmonds went to Senators Chuck Grassley and Patrick J. Leahy, both of whom are demanding answers. "This whistleblower raised serious questions about potential security problems and the integrity of important translations made by the FBI," Grassley said in a statement. "She made these allegations in good faith and even though the deck was stacked against her. The FBI even admits to a number of her allegations, and on other allegations, the bureau's explanation leaves me skeptical."

I turn to a source I wouldn't normally credit, but in this case Peggy Noonan asks some questions she may not like the answers to:

"Ms. Rowley said she would not use the term coverup to characterize the FBI's official statements since Sept. 11. She said she will 'carefully' use, instead, these words: 'Certain facts . . . have . . . been omitted, downplayed, glossed over and/or mis-characterized in an effort to avoid or minimize personal and/or institutional embarrassment on the part of the FBI and/or perhaps even for improper political reasons.'

"What improper political reasons? She does not say. But throughout her memo she demonstrates a seriousness about words, a carefulness as to meaning. It will be interesting when she is asked by Congress or the press what she meant exactly."

In her now-famous memo, Rowley relates that, around the Minnesota FBI office where she was working frantically to rope in the "20th hijacker"

"Almost everyone's first question was: 'Why? Why would an FBI agent(s) deliberately sabotage a case?' …Jokes were actually made that the key FBIHQ personnel had to be spies or moles, like Robert Hansen [actually Hanssen], who were actually working for Osama bin Laden."

Leaving aside for the moment the question of why, in the post-9/11 era, a patriotic American with vital information on spies in our law enforcement apparatus, would have the deck "stacked against her," as Senator Grassley puts it – what about the latest translation "glitch" reported, this time, by the National Security Agency? This supposedly left two key Arabic-language messages intercepted "on the eve of the Sept. attacks" – "The match is about to begin" and "Tomorrow is zero hour" – untranslated until Sept. 12.

The explanation given, intriguingly, is that the sources weren't top priority – i.e. they didn't involve Osama bin Laden and his top circle – but were important enough to account for the relatively short two-day lapse. The blame is being placed on lack of resources, human fallibility, anything but a deliberate policy of sabotage.

Stuck at the bottom of the NSA "glitch" story is the news that "the House-Senate panel apparently has decided to delay hearing in an open session testimony by [FBI chief Robert S.] Mueller, [CIA Director George J.] Tenet and [NSA director, Lt. Gen. Michael V.] Hayden, originally set for next week. 'We want to make sure when we go public that the right people are there and we're prepared so we don't look like we're flying by the seat of our pants,' said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a member of the panel."

What LaHood and his fellow members of congress need is a well-placed kick directly in the seat of their pants. An open hearing on these matters is the last thing this administration wants, and both parties are complicit in keeping the truth from the American people. How many more 9/11's do we have to go through before patriots see through the scare tactics, the cover-ups, and reluctance of the media and political elites to ask the hard questions?

We need to listen to what Edmonds, Rowley, and others are asking: Why would the FBI hierarchy deliberately sabotage a case? Why are Israeli spies allowed to roam free, with untrammeled access to our "secure" communications? Are top officials of our law enforcement agencies mentally challenged – or is treason the reason?

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against US Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.