Sibel Edmonds began working for the FBI shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, translating top-secret documents pertaining to suspected terrorists. She was fired in the spring of 2002 after reporting her concerns about sabotage, intimidation, corruption and incompetence to superiors. She first gained wide public attention in October of that year when she appeared on 60 Minutes on CBS and charged that the FBI, State Department, and Pentagon had been infiltrated by Turkish individuals suspected of ties to terrorism. On October 18, 2002, at the request of FBI Director Robert Mueller, Attorney General Ashcroft imposed a gag order on Ms. Edmonds, citing possible damage to diplomatic relations or national security. Edmonds is a key witness in a pending class-action suit filed by 9/11 families against the government. The following interview, conducted this past weekend for almost three hours by telephone, reveals sordid new details about U.S. intelligence practices.
Christopher Deliso: Sibel, first of all, thanks very much for speaking with us today. I'm delighted to have this chance to speak with someone of your experience and bravery in the face of governmental opposition and intimidation.
Sibel Edmonds: Well thanks very much for having me.
CD: Despite your media prominence, I don't think readers know so much about you. So can you tell us a bit about yourself? Are you from Turkey? Or just of Turkish descent?
SE: No, I am from Turkey originally.
CD: But you speak excellent English and with an American accent too. That's why I thought maybe you were just of Turkish descent. So, how long were you in Turkey before coming to the U.S.?
SE: I had a pretty interesting upbringing. I was actually born in Iran, where I lived until I was two and a half. Then I lived in Turkey till I was 5, then back in Iran till I was 11. And then in Turkey again until I was 18.
CD: That's quite a lot of moving. Why did you come and go so much?
SE: My father is Azerbaijani. He was a doctor during the Shah regime. After the revolution, they kept useful foreigners like him. During the Iran-Iraq war, he was taken to the front lines, and we weren't allowed to leave the country.
CD: Wow! And when did you come to America?
SE: Actually, I came as a student in 1988. My idea was to study for three or four years and then go back to Turkey. But I guess you can't plan life in advance in my third year I met my future husband and ended up staying.
CD: What drew you to eventually work for the FBI?
SE: Well, I actually studied criminal justice with a major in psychology at George Washington University. When I was finishing in 1997-98, I decided to apply for any kind of a job that would give me hands-on experience in criminal justice. I worked for the Alexandria [Va.] Juvenile Court, working with kids from a deprived background or who had been sexually abused or involved with drugs, etc. At that time I also thought I would apply with the FBI for a similar, hands-on job.
CD: As a linguist?
SE: No, actually I just applied for a general position. It was only after they'd seen all my qualifications and background that they said they were interested in my linguistic abilities.
CD: Now I know you speak Turkish but what else?
SE: Because of my time in Iran, I also know Farsi. And Azerbaijani.
CD: Which is fairly close to Turkish.
SE: Yes, a Turkic language.
CD: So what did you do next? The FBI?
SE: Well, no, the process actually took a very long time. There was the linguistic proficiency test, forms to fill out, urine and blood samples and polygraph tests the whole works. Then they said they'd need to do background checks, which would take anywhere from nine to 15 months, and finally they would call me to let me know about my application. And that was the last I heard from them for two or three years.
CD: Huh? What happened?
SE: Well I just went on with my life. I did other things. Sheerly out of curiosity, one day in January or February of 2001 I called the FBI up to see what had happened. They put me on hold, checked certain things, then came back on the line, and apologized profusely. Apparently, my application along with 150 others had been lost or had disappeared during the past couple years.
CD: Maybe that should have been a warning right there about their incompetence. So the files just disappeared from FBI headquarters?
SE: Actually, it was not headquarters we're talking about, it was the Tyson's Corner office where I'd taken the exam. Apparently they had moved within the same office complex, and maybe the files were lost then. Anyway, they were very apologetic and nice about it.
CD: So you had to apply all over again?
SE: No, they found some information about me remaining on one of their computers. And they promised they would speed up the background check process. But I told them, "look, I can't work for you now," because after all, my life had moved on at that point. Nevertheless they said they would get back to me later.
And so on September 14, 2001, I got a call asking how soon I could start work in their Washington field office. At the time I got their call, I was studying full-time and also working a part-time job. But in the wake of 9/11, with the government on television almost begging for qualified personnel, it was almost like like duty calling, you know? So I went and met with them. When I explained my situation and other responsibilities they tried to be very flexible, saying I could work whatever hours I wanted, nights, weekends, whatever. That's how desperate they were for qualified translators. I got a job as a "contract" translator, which allowed more flexibility than if they hired me full-time.
CD: And you worked for them until March 2002, when you were fired for being a whistleblower, correct?
CD: And how did they handle that? Did you get some notice, or reason for your dismissal?
SE: No. I was literally thrown out of the building. They even didn't give me time to take all my family photos and personal items from my desk. I'm 5 foot 4 and 100 pounds, and you had all these big burly guys forcibly taking me out of the building. It was absurd.
CD: Did they threaten you in any way?
SE: Yes. This guy, one of my superiors, tried to act tough and threatened me that if I said anything to the press, the congress or even a lawyer, "the next time I see you will be in jail." I replied, "well, I maybe in jail, but I won't be the one behind bars."
CD: Wow. That's pretty brave.
SE: [Laughing] This is why one of the top guys, I am not sure whether it was the same guy, later called me a "nightmare."
CD: After they threw you out on the street, did they keep up the pressure?
SE: It was the worst at the beginning but then they saw they could do nothing. Right before the 60 Minutes interview, for example, they threatened that I would go to jail if I talked to the media, a senator or attorney. But that was all hot air.
The strangest thing was when the Turkish government issued an arrest warrant for my middle sister. I have the translated version, allegedly she was to be arrested for "high-level national security matters." Come on! My middle sister worked for KLM Airlines. She didn't even read newspapers the most apolitical person I know.
Working Conditions in the FBI Translation Department
CD: So what hours did you end up working?
SE: I usually worked about four days a week, generally from 5 to 11 p.m. Basically 20 to 25 hours a week.
CD: Can you describe what your working conditions were like? For example, what was your office like? How many people were you working with?
SE: The FBI's Washington translation center is located about three blocks from headquarters, and is the largest and most important one of its kind in the country. They don't have centers like that in the L.A. or New York offices, for example. So this gigantic department is basically a connected room containing 200 to 250 translators, all working side by side, at very close quarters.
CD: What, in government-issue cubicles?
SE: Not even maybe half cubicles. I mean, your shoulders were touching those of the translator next to you. It was that tight.
CD: What languages were covered in this office?
SE: Oh, a lot of languages. Certain departments had 25 to 30 translators. Some only had two. It was based on the perceived importance of the language in question.
CD: So you were put in to translate documents related to the war on terror, from Turkish into English, right?
SE: Yes, Turkish and the other two languages I spoke. For one of these I was the first formal person for one of them that they had, but I can't say which one.
Now the FBI has two kinds of translators "linguists" and "monitors." The first are more highly qualified, can do the whole range of translating whether it be from documents, audio, verbatim, detainee interviews, etc. The latter, because their proficiency levels were lower in either English or the target language, and because they had obtained lower scores in one of the two exams, had a more limited role. For example, they weren't allowed to do verbatim translations, but more like summaries.
CD: Something like a general overview of a document, to judge whether it would require a closer look by someone better qualified?
SE: Exactly. A summary that a more qualified linguist could then translate verbatim if it contained important information.
CD: So you were in the first category, a full linguist?
SE: For Turkish and Azerbaijani I was, yes. But since I hadn't been practicing Farsi for practically 25 years, I was just allowed to be a monitor in that language. I passed all the FBI exams in written Farsi, but not all for speaking. So I didn't do, say, live interviews.
CD: Whom did you work with? Only fellow translators, or did you work with special agents from the field?
SE: Most of our immediate supervisors were former translators who became bureaucrats. They handled things like time sheets, insurance, and making travel arrangements for us when we would have to travel. But yes, I did work on a daily basis with special agents.
CD: From where? Washington or other places too?
SE: Well, the one special agent I worked with most frequently was from the local office, but also there were agents from FBI offices all over the country. They flooded us with urgent translation requests, especially dealing with assignments and investigations begun before 9/11, and connected with 9/11, but that had been neglected before. Close to 75 percent of my assignments then had to do with pre-9/11 intelligence.
CD: Did you get called out for special assignments in other cities?
SE: Yes, I went to other cities, for example to perform translations for detainees who did not speak English. Let's say an agent in Chicago has a detainee suspected of terrorist involvement, they need to know if he should be kept or released. If he doesn't speak much English it can be hard to know. So you need translators.
The Critical Importance of Translators
CD: People have disparaged the job and position as being "low-level." But from this, it sounds like very important work. Did you ever feel the agents were depending on you?
SE: Well, just think about it: if they don't know the language, they are not in a position to make decisions. You are. You're going through thousands of pieces of evidence, and have to decide which ones to do verbatim, which ones to summarize, which ones to throw away as being irrelevant. I mean, a transcript about someone's sex life is not particularly useful. But there might be important clues hidden in some at first glance not very interesting text. So the translator has to sift out what's important, before the analysts and agents even see it.
CD: So you're saying that you would see all of the raw data first, and then decide what to do with it and who would see it?
CD: And that they [the agents] don't have any way of knowing if you're telling the truth or giving them the right translation?
CD: So more or less, the agents are at the mercy of the translator?
SE: Correct. While the FBI's internal procedures say that a second translator should always take a look at every text, to prevent any faulty translations from occurring, that never happens.
CD: Really? Why not?
SE: Well, a lot of the translators would find that offensive, you know, the idea that someone might think they're not good enough and need to be babysat in their translating. It could end up in a fistfight.
The whole place is like that. It's like the Twilight Zone in there you have to keep the Pakistani translators on one side of the room and the Indians on the other, or they will come to blows. You have to keep the Hebrew translators separated from the Arabic ones, and so on. It's so unprofessional it's ridiculous. Most of the time people spend trying to dig up dirt on one another. Really.
CD: From this, I gather that most of the FBI's translators are foreign-born?
SE: As far as I saw, yes, everyone was a naturalized citizen. And I understand that some of these guys had only been in the country for, like, four or five years. So they can't have been able to do really detailed background checks on all of them.
CD: But back to your working relationship with the field agents. Did you have to do anything else to bring them up to speed on the situation in question, or just translate the documents?
SE: For the record, I have to say that most of these agents were really, really good and they did their best despite all the nonsense and bureaucratic obstructions. But they can't be expected to be really successful if they don't have the right background. There was this one guy I worked with, he had formerly done the drug beat in L.A. and then was transferred to counter-intelligence. He was a great agent, but since he didn't have the right political and cultural background, he couldn't understand the translated texts in their proper context. And you also have to be up-to-date [on developments taking place in the country where the target language is spoken]. So I had to give him little notes explaining what it all meant.
CD: That does not sound very auspicious.
SE: It's so funny. You would think that that was supposed to be the job of the analysts. That the information would go first from the translators then to the analysts for color commentary, then finally to the agents to be acted on.
But no. You translate it, give it to the agent and if he decides it's important, he will send it to the analysts maybe seven or eight days later!
CD: That said, what was the general modus operandi of your translations department? I mean, what percent of translators were both translating well and keeping their agents as informed as you were?
SE: A very few translators worked like I did basically, the few people who actually cared. But also, note that the majority of agents didn't even realize they needed to understand more than the raw translated text to know what they should do next. So, a lot of times very important information was overlooked, simply because no one recognized its significance.
CD: Aside from these frustrations and letdowns, were there any cases in which you felt some of your work produced a clearly positive result through the actions of those you informed?
SE: Yes. Certain investigations I contributed to as a translator were successfully concluded by our agents. On one occasion, the intelligence agency of a certain foreign country sent a commendation letter to the agent I was partnered with, because they had taken an action based on information he had provided them information which ultimately derived from me.
Incompetence, Corruption and Cover-ups: The Kevin Taskasen Affair
CD: In your October 25 2002 interview with 60 Minutes, "Lost in Translation," you charged the FBI with incompetence and greed and also of allowing infiltration by foreign intelligence outfits. Some of these charges have also been substantiated by other sources, both congressional and from inside the bureau. For example, there's the Guantanamo Bay Turkish-English translator who actually didn't know either language very well, Kevin Taskasen, I believe? And he worked with you at some point?
CD: And also, your bosses told you to work more slowly, in some cases not at all, so that the department's seemingly huge workload would mean more funding the next year, right?
CD: Can you provide any more details on these subjects?
SE: Well, as for Kevin he was this poor little guy who was very nice, his only fault as a translator being that he, well, didn't speak English.
CD: Really! Where was he from? How did he get that job, anyway?
SE: Kevin was from Turkey. He had met an American woman there, married her, and moved to America. But his lower-elementary-school-level English was only enough to get him a job as a busboy/dishwasher in a restaurant.
However, his wife worked in the languages testing center at FBI headquarters in Washington. Hers was the office that takes in the applications of aspiring translators and schedule language proficiency tests.
CD: So in other words, she used her connections to get him a job in the FBI, even though he wasn't qualified?
SE: Correct. There was an Arabic language supervisor in our department, who had about seven or eight family members under his wing, working away in the Arabic language section even though several of them weren't qualified, hadn't passed the proficiency test in either English or Arabic
CD: So they made a bargain?
SE: Yes, he had made a deal with this woman, Kevin's wife. She had approved all of his extended family members to work for the FBI translations center, and so she then asked to do the same with her poor husband. And I can't really blame him at all, he was just a nice guy who dreamed of opening his own restaurant. But that's not likely to happen when you're working as a busboy for $6.50 an hour.
CD: How much do they pay in the translating department that he was hired to?
SE: The average is $40 an hour.
CD: So basically, what you had was a nudge-nudge wink-wink thing going on between the woman in the application office and the head honcho in the translation center.
SE: Correct. In light of what she'd done for him, the deal was that he [the Arabic supervisor] would turn a blind eye to her poor husband's incompetence for 3 years. He agreed and in October 2001 it started. Again, I can't blame Kevin. He would be coming to me every five minutes asking, "What does this word mean?" He was really trying, but he was struggling because he just didn't know English well enough. So I ended up having to do his work for him too.
CD: How long did this go on for? Did you alert your supervisors?
SE: Yes. I went to them and asked, "what is he doing here?" But nothing was done and only a few months later, in February of 2002, he was given a TDY [travel assignment] to translate the testimony of Turkic-speaking detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
When told of this assignment, Kevin stood in front of all the other translators. He was crying, and said, "I can't do it, I just can't." I told him to go to the boss and just say no, if he didn't feel capable. But he didn't.
CD: Come on! One would think that for the marquis interrogation center in the war on terror, the government would send only the best and brightest. Why did they even think of sending him?
SE: Aside from sending Kevin, the FBI had only two options, neither of them good for them. They could send me, as I was the only qualified Turkish linguist, but this raised a red flag considering that I had already started to make a fuss about how the game was being played. Their other choice was to humbly ask the NSA or DIA or another agency to borrow a Turkish-language translator. But they couldn't do this because there is all this intra-agency competition. None of them would ever let it look like their people weren't as good as the other agencies'. So it was partly a matter of pride.
CD: Do you know what happened to Kevin in Guantanamo?
SE: He didn't come back till mid-April . But surely while there he had heard information he wasn't able to convey properly in English. Maybe clues about 9/11, or about future terrorist attacks in the works. Or maybe information proving that some detainees had been wrongfully imprisoned.
That's another thing. What if a military detainee is on trial? You have to, you simply have to double-check the translations that are being used as evidence against the detainee. After all, you might be sending someone to his death based on faulty evidence! But all too often, they just put the stamp of approval on anything that says "FBI translation," because that is supposed to indicate automatically a certain unassailable level of quality.
CD: After coming back, and after the story broke proving he wasn't a qualified translator, what happened then? Did he get fired?
SE: No. After all that, he is back in Washington D.C., and is the head of the Turkish department in the FBI translations center. As far as I know, he is the only Turkish-speaking translator there now. Even after all this.
CD: Good God! One translator and an incompetent one at that! Isn't that a national security liability?
SE: Yes, but you have to look at it from their perspective. What if they let him go, and he starts talking about what he knows? Either way, it's about control. If they fire someone, they might either corroborate my story, or even release documents that could prove damning for the FBI it works out to be more of a liability for them to fire someone than to keep them in the office, where they can continue to compromise our national security.
Criminal Infiltration: The Mysterious "Semi-Legitimate Organizations"
CD: In a fascinating recent interview with Breakfornews.com, you say that with the synoptic view you acquired at the FBI, the "picture" of non-state organized crime linked with state institutions becomes "crystal clear." For the benefit of our readers, let me just re-quote one of your statements:
"[Y]ou have [a] network of people who obtain certain information and they take it out and sell it to whomever would be the highest bidder. Then you have people who would be bringing into the country narcotics from the East, and their connections. [It] is only then that you really see the big picture."
At several points you state that such organized crime networks employ "semi-legitimate organizations" as their point of interface with governments and the "legit" world. Can you explain exactly what you mean?
SE: These are organizations that might have a legitimate front say as a business, or a cultural center or something. And we've also heard a lot about Islamic charities as fronts for terrorist organizations, but the range is much broader and even, simpler.
CD: For example?
SE: You might have an organization supposed to be promoting the cultural affairs of a certain country within another country. Hypothetically, say, an Uzbek folklore society based in Germany. The stated purpose would be to hold folklore-related activities and they might even do that but the real activities taking place behind the scenes are criminal.
CD: Such as?
SE: Everything from drugs to money laundering to arms sales. And yes, there are certain convergences with all these activities and international terrorism.
CD: So with these organizations we're talking about a lot of money
SE: Huge, just massive. They don't deal with 1 million or 5 million dollars, but with hundreds of millions.
CD: From your previous testimony and the examples I want to bring up next, it would seem that organized crime with terrorist links is really holding the reins inside powerful governments, even the American one. No?
SE: That may be, but I don't know. I didn't get high enough up on the ladder to find out. With all of this suspicious and unprecedented "state secrets" obstructionism from Ashcroft, it might seem that way, but I don't have any direct information.
CD: But what do think, within departments such as the Pentagon and the State Department. Do you suspect certain high officials may be profiting from terrorist-linked organized crime?
SE: I can't say anything specific with regards to these departments, because I didn't work for them. But as for the politicians, what I can say is that when you start talking about huge amounts of money, certain elected officials become automatically involved. And there are different kinds of campaign contributions legal and illegal, declared and undeclared.
CD: Could this apparent toleration of dangerous criminal groups in the midst possibly be interpreted to mean that American policy is driven by the "ends justify the means" philosophy?
SE: But how are the ends possibly met by such activities? To this day, I just can't see how. What is happening does not benefit 99.9 percent of Americans just a very small elite.
I'm no expert, but from what I have personally seen I can say that our national security is being compromised every day, because important investigations are being stopped, and potentially important clues are being overlooked. It's absolutely incredible that even after 9/11, certain individuals, foreign businessmen and others, among others, are still escaping scrutiny.
Okay, perhaps talking about the pre-9/11 world they could get away with saying "we didn't know," but to continue doing so I mean, what if we are attacked by nuclear or chemical weapons, what will be their next excuse? That "we didn't know" it could happen? Come on! I can prove they are lying, because they know.
The Jan Dickerson Affair: A Brief History
CD: Right. So let's discuss your specific experiences of criminal infiltration in the FBI, for example when one of your co-workers, Jan [originally "Can"] Dickerson, and her husband tried to recruit you into a criminal network that had infiltrated high levels of the U.S. government.
SE: Alright, sure.
CD: As I understand it, Jan Dickerson was also trying to protect one criminal associate a Turkish-speaking suspect of an FBI investigation by blocking translations referring to him. Yes?
CD: And this was an official working out of the Turkish Embassy in Washington
SE: No, that part is not correct. I cannot talk about the position or the job of this person
CD: But in the other media stories about your case, he was identified as
SE: Yes, I know. The term "official" was used in the senators' memos from their [summer 2002] meetings with the FBI, and so then when cited by the media it became automatically assumed that he was government but since this individual has never been named, I can only describe him as working on behalf of a "semi-legitimate" organization.
CD: Okay, so tell us about Jan Dickerson, and that experience.
SE: Well, I have to be somewhat general about this, but based on unclassified sources alone you can get a pretty good idea. Melek Can Dickerson was a Turkish woman
CD: Originally from Turkey, like you?
SE: Yes, from Turkey, and she met her husband there, Douglas Major Douglas Dickerson, that is. He was in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in Ankara. They met in 1991 and stayed in Turkey till 1994 or 1995. Then they went to Germany, where he was stationed after, for two or three years. And then they came to the U.S. in 1999.
CD: But first, regarding Turkey: do you know what Dickerson's function was there in the USAF?
SE: He was involved with weapons procurement for various Central Asian and Middle Eastern governments from the United States.
CD: Yo! Do you mean he was procuring weapons on an intra-governmental basis, or something else?
SE: Yes, from the U.S. government for these other governments. I assume it was all legal and part of his job.
CD: Okay, but in the process he could have built up contacts and connections with various unsavory characters in regional governments and in the arms trade
SE: He could have, but I don't know.
CD: Anyway, what kind of countries are we talking about here?
SE: Oh I don't know all of them exactly, but I guess these would be countries like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan
CD: All of our favorites
SE: [Laughter] Yes, right, countries like these and some Middle Eastern countries.
CD: And what about after Turkey? When they went to Germany?
SE: Well, he was stationed there, and while in Germany, Jan Dickerson started working for this semi-legitimate organization whose members, much later, were being investigated by the FBI, when I was working there.
CD: Fascinating, And this criminal group that the Dickersons were involved in, what kind of countries did it have connections with and where were its members from?
SE: Oh, that varied. Members came from all over; when you're dealing with those huge amounts of money you get people from everywhere.
SE: Of course. But also from Europe, Central Asia, etc. And this organization had branches throughout these places, in the U.S., Germany, and several other countries.
The Fateful Visit
CD: Now let's fast-forward to November 2001, when Jan Dickerson joined you at the FBI. What were her duties?
SE: She was a "monitor," the second type of translator, because she didn't have the scores on one of her two language proficiency exams. As a monitor she was supposed to make general summary translations, not verbatim.
CD: Did you have any idea at the time about her suspect allegiances?
SE: I had no idea at first. It was only after some suspicious behavior and then her and her husband's unannounced visit to our house that everything became clear.
One day in December , my husband and I were at our home in Alexandria, Va., when the doorbell rang. It was Jan and Doug Dickerson. They also lived in Alexandria, so I didn't think of it as suspicious at first. I think the point for her was to introduce her husband to mine. We invited them in for coffee, and
CD: She started trying to recruit you for their illegal activities?
SE: No, actually she herself did not. It was the husband who started talking about this semi-legitimate organization: "Hey, have you ever heard of this group?" he said, casually mentioning this organization to my husband. He replied, "Yeah, I know about them." And I started sweating, because I knew this organization was under FBI investigation, and I was by law not allowed to discuss anything about it with my husband.
CD: But, for your husband to have heard of it, it had to have been a group that was well known to the public as something fairly innocuous, right?
SE: Yes, as I said, a legitimate front. And Dickerson asked my husband if he'd ever thought of joining the organization.
CD: So there was something socially desirable about belonging in this group?
SE: Correct. And so my husband was kind of surprised, you know, because this wasn't the sort of group just anyone could belong to. "But I thought you had to be such and such a person, with such and such connections and references to get in," my husband was saying.
And then Major Douglas Dickerson smiled and pointed at me. "All you have to do is tell them where your wife works and what she does, and they will let you in like that," he said [snapping his fingers]. They wanted to sell me for the information I could provide, basically.
CD: What did you take this to mean? You would have to hand over classified FBI information
SE: Correct. The information I could give these people would be worth a lot of money.
CD: And what would you get out of it?
SE: Well, money, and we could leave the country, you know, live a very comfortable life wherever we wanted. We would never have to work again, they promised.
CD: So what did you do then, with him propositioning your husband right in front of you?
SE: I tried to change the subject, because anything I might say on the subject would have been against the law, considering the ongoing investigation.
CD: When you went back to work, did you bring the matter up?
SE: I reported it two days later to my direct supervisor, a former Arabic translator. He told me he would file it immediately with the security department. This was in December 2001. When nothing happened, I pursued the matter with a special agent who had also been getting suspicious about some of Jan Dickerson's translations. When we finally got through to the security department, they said they'd never been notified in the first place about my complaint. I have all of the dated documents, emails, etc., still to prove it.
CD: Did Dickerson's protection of the suspects, and their larger infiltration of the American security apparatus, did these things have a deleterious effect on bureau investigations?
SE: As a result of their penetration, certain people who had been detained were released people who had valuable information. And other targets of this investigation, key people, were allowed to flee the country, right up through January and February of 2002.
CD: These were foreign nationals based in the United States?
CD: Did you have any awareness of this exodus?
SE: I reported some of the suspects' names higher up as I came across them in our investigation. And you know what? Within two weeks, they had all left the country. Just vanished.
The Great Escape
CD: So what happened after? As far as I know, Jan Dickerson has quit the FBI and re-located to Belgium. Was she forced out when your story broke? Did she flee? And is her husband still in the Air Force?
SE: I assume that at the time of that conversation in our house, in December 2001, Douglas Dickerson was in the USAF because finally in August of the next year, the USAF held a formal investigation and confirmed this. This was a major violation of his high-level security clearance. By law he is required to report it if his wife or family members are involved with illegal activities.
Mysteriously enough, only two weeks after the formal Air Force investigation began, they both left the country, on September 9, 2002.
CD: Why did the government just let them escape?
SE: Well, after my case began in June 2002, the judge subpoenaed them and ordered the DOJ not to let them leave the country. But the Air Force gave them a free pass by sending Major Dickerson off to Belgium to work something with NATO, a minimum two-year assignment.
CD: With NATO? Doing what?
SE: I don't know exactly, just that it was with NATO. So before leaving, a pretty angry Doug Dickerson had to make a declaration under oath that if he was requested by the court at any time he would return, and the FBI would pay for his flight.
CD: So there is still a chance that they will face justice someday?
SE: Well, we discovered that the Dickerson's also had bank accounts in several countries, some of which didn't have the appropriate extradition treaties with the U.S. so I don't think so, no, I don't think it's likely. They're gone.
But the really outrageous thing is that, for the whole month we were subpoenaing them, starting in June 2002, Jan Dickerson was still working away in the FBI translations department, with her top-security clearance. This even though the FBI had simultaneously admitted to a congressional committee that not only had Jan Dickerson worked for this suspect organization in the past, but that she had maintained ongoing relationships with at least two individuals under investigation.
But How Could She Have Been Hired?
CD: Why was she allowed to stay, and keep her security clearance? Were they trying to protect someone higher up?
SE: I don't know. Is it possible? Yes. But I just don't know.
But at the unclassified meeting between the senators and FBI being held then, the former were in utter disbelief when the FBI admitted Jan Dickerson had been working for this semi-legitimate organization since long before she joined the bureau. "But how!?" asked the senators. You know what their answer was? "Well, she didn't write down any previous employers on her application."
CD: What? None?
SE: Correct. She didn't just neglect to mention that job, aside from others she put down. She just left the whole box blank! As if she had never worked a day in her life!
CD: And the FBI hired her? You can't even get a job in a bar without listing previous employers!
SE: Look, it took me a year and a half to get my background check performed. And that after filling out the complete application at the bottom of which it states that failure to fill out the form correctly will result in a cash fine and jail term for perjury. A federal crime. So based on that alone, even aside from her other activities, Jan Dickerson should have been prosecuted!
CD: But instead she was hired and kept on even after things heated up. There's something very, very suspicious about all this, especially considering the way Kevin Taskasen was hired. Do you believe another official on the inside, part of that crime ring, brought her in?
SE: I recently met with a reliable source who confirmed that Melek Can Dickerson was hired and granted TSC [top security clearance] without having to go through a background check/investigation, and that in light of [infamous FBI double-agent Robert] Hanssen the bureau is doing all it can to keep it quiet. Still, I have plenty of unanswered questions: why? By whom?
CD: That indeed seems to be the underlying question here. Did the FBI have anything else to say under this senatorial scrutiny?
SE: They made the quite pertinent point that she [Jan Dickerson] had failed to disclose her previous associations with the suspect organization. A shocked senator said, "If you gave her top security clearance, how could she not have been made to disclose [this information]?"
You know how they [the FBI] replied? "A lack of good training" was behind Dickerson's failure to properly disclose her various relationships.
CD: That's incredible. What was the reaction from the senators?
SE: They were persistent, mentioning that beyond that, hadn't she blocked pertinent information [in translations]? The FBI replied, "Oh, well, we've confirmed this in two or three cases."
Actually, there were hundreds of cases from November 2001 to February 2002 in which she obstructed investigations with her translations or lack thereof.
CD: Right, how exactly would she do this?
SE: Well, as a monitor, she was supposed to give general translations or not and if not the document could be marked "not pertinent," and basically never be seen again.
In those few months, she managed to mark every file that mentioned this, these targets, [the Turkish suspect] as "not pertinent." Hundreds of files. Finally, this special agent working on the case got suspicious, and he tasked me with re-translating all of these documents.
CD: So how did that go? Did you find any damning information?
SE: Oh, yes. There was content that directly linked the suspects with the group under investigation.
CD: How many documents did you translate?
SE: Out of the pile of hundreds, I only got to 17 pieces before I was suddenly terminated.
CD: Can you tell us how long the FBI had been investigating these targets by the time you started working for them?
SE: A long time. There's really no time limit with the big criminal and counter-intelligence investigations, versus the counter-terrorism ones. These are investigations we'd never do anything about
SE: [Laughing] Because it would hurt certain foreign relations abroad, of course and they don't want that. So even after 3,000 people lost their lives on 9/11, those behind these very lucrative illegal activities get a free pass. And they refuse to continue important investigations because of certain diplomatic relations that 99.9 percent of Americans gain no benefits from.
How the FBI Seduces Dissenters
CD: Sibel, I know you made a lot of complaints about several other examples of corruption and incompetence beyond the ones we have time to discuss. Can you just explain a little about how your superiors received your complaints?
SE: Sure. They used what we call the "hooking" procedure. When I first reported some of these translations failures and stalling tactics in December 2001 to my superiors, my mid-level manager said to me, "Now, Sibel, I understand you've been taking on a lot of coursework at your university. Why not take advantage of our workplace opportunities?"
When I asked him what he meant, this boss suggested that I could "bring my school bag" to work on Saturdays and Sundays, and just study. No work. I wouldn't even have to turn on my computer. He told me that I should then put myself down as having worked all those hours on the time sheet, so that, you know, I would be making something like $700 in a weekend specifically for not working!
SE: And this is what they say when you file a complaint.
CD: So is that the extent of how they tried to appease you and forestall complaints, or do you have other examples?
SE: That's funny, there is another really amazing example. They would come to me and say, "Sibel, we understand you've been going back to Turkey a couple of times a year to visit family. Before you go the next time, just let us know. We'll make it a TDY" [paid travel]. And all I'd have to do is stop off in some liaison office in Ankara a couple times, make my little appearance, and suddenly all my flights, hotels and expenses would be paid for by the FBI. I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
CD: An offer you couldn't refuse, huh? I imagine most people in your position would take it.
SE: Oh, so many people will go for it but if you do, then they [the FBI] can use it against you. Maybe discover irregularities in your expenses at some later date, "forged" documents, or else just hold it over your head. They love to do things like that to hold you in their power.
On another occasion when I complained about working conditions and practices, they actually offered to hire and train me as SA, special agent! I still have a copy of that offer. I said, "I'm not here to ask for a promotion, I'm trying to make a complaint!" Then they would just change the topic. They would go to any length possible to avoid accountability.
The Current Situation: Ashcroft's Obstructionism and a Legal Battle
CD: Sibel, I know you are eager to speak about the lawsuit you have filed against the Department of Justice, and John Ashcroft's questionable use of the "State Secrets Act" to place a gag order on you. Can you give us some background on this legal battle, and the current state of play?
SE: My case originally began in June of 2002, when I filed a First Amendment and Privacy lawsuit against the Department of Justice. In two unclassified meetings in June and July, eight people from two senators met with three FBI officials, including Margaret Gullota, who is still in charge of the FBI languages department. At these meetings, the FBI admitted that all of my charges were accurate. The memos taken down by Senators Grassley and Leahy, two very senior senators, confirmed this. That's very damning for [the FBI].
CD: I understand that Ashcroft's current restrictive tactics have revolved around this concept of classified versus unclassified meetings. Can you please distinguish precisely what is meant by each term?
SE: A classified meeting must be held in a secure room known as a SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility), you know, a room swept for bugs, checked for wiretaps, and everyone in there has to have top security clearance. But this wasn't the case in June and July 2002. They didn't follow any of these procedures in the meetings with the senators, because they were never requested to be classified by the FBI in the first place. So now all they can say is, "Whoops, those meetings should have been classified," and thus try to classify them after the fact.
CD: So how has the case gotten to this point? Has there been no progress at all?
SE: From the beginning, there has been zero activity. Four times I was given a hearing date, and four times it was cancelled without explanation.
However, the big law firm Motley Rice subpoenaed me in April of this year, as part of their lawsuit on behalf of family members of the 9/11 victims. Motley Rice wanted copies of all the memos those senators had written during that unclassified meetings in 2002. But as soon as they even listed some of the questions they were planning to ask me, it was suddenly "state secrets" time.
John Ashcroft you can expect anything from that man has now broken the law in trying to silence me. I have been speaking out for over two years, but only now is he saying "everything about Sibel Edmonds is classified." It's ridiculous.
CD: But by demanding all the information be dug up and reburied, isn't the DOJ actually bringing more attention to your cause?
SE: Exactly! That's just what it has done. These people are shooting themselves in the foot.
So, returning to the subpoena, I was scheduled to appear on April 27. Two days before, the DOJ started kicking and screaming to hold an emergency proceeding. This was the first time (on April 26) that I had the privilege of going before the judge President Bush had appointed, Reggie Walton. He was not the first judge who had been appointed to the case. Their tactic was to pass it around from judge to judge to make sure the case would never begin. Judge Walton has now sat on it for two years.
CD: But didn't the intervention of Motley Rice help at all? Did Judge Walton make a new hearing date for you?
SE: Well, on June 24 they filed an appeal. But, oh, my case is so messy and complicated. Judge Walton then set a hearing date for June 14, but of course he cancelled it two days later. Now he has said, and I can be verbally exact: "Tentatively, we will have a hearing on July 9, 2004." But it's not going to happen. They're going to drag this thing out. The judge has liberty to sit on it as long as he wants.
CD: But can't you file an appeal or complaint or anything to expedite the process?
SE: Well, yes you can file a complaint, but some in the legal community caution that this can actually backfire because the judge tends to grow more and more antagonistic if you do so.
CD: So basically, you have had no progress on this case.
Is the Tide Turning?
SE: Correct. We have had no progress. Except, now others are joining up. For the past two weeks, we have had new support from the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) and Citizen Watch.
CD: What have they been doing?
SE: The Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) has declared that Attorney General Ashcroft violated their regulations when he put the gag order on me and ordered everything to be re-classified. There are three criteria that need to be met for a gag order to take effect: one, that the order must come from the head of the Department of Justice; two, that the information in question must be reasonably recoverable; and three, that the head of the DOJ first obtain the official approval of the ISOO.
However, only the first of these criteria was met Ashcroft did indeed give the order. But the second criterion was obviously impossible so many websites, newspapers and TV had long ago published all of the material relating to my case. It was and is everywhere. There is nothing "reasonably recoverable" about it.
And as for the third criteria, let alone not get permission, Ashcroft didn't even bother to notify the ISOO that he was re-classifying the information related to me. He showed contempt for the regulations by going around them.
CD: So in other words, the Attorney General's actions were completely illegal?
SE: Correct. Because these three criteria were not met, the DOJ has actually violated its own rules!
CD: Do you have the support of any congressmen? I know that Senators Grassley and Leahy, in particular, have stepped up to bat for you.
SE: Well it's very interesting, even though this issue is starting to get major media interest, like the recent articles in The New Republic and New York Times, these two senators are still complying with an order from Ashcroft that is completely illegal.
CD: How exactly?
SE: They have removed texts from their official websites detailing the unclassified meeting they had with the FBI in 2002. We found out when the New York Times printed a leaked memo, on May 19 or 20, that senators were ordered the information had been re-classified.
CD: You have expressed a desire for "one brave senator" to take up your cause. But what can they actually do, if the DOJ and judges rule in favor of classification?
SE: You know what they can do? Any senator or congressman can tell the press everything I have to say.
CD: Really? Doesn't that violate whatever the restrictions are the DOJ is putting on you?
SE: I'm authorized under law to testify in secret, in a secure room [SCIF] before a congressman. But if that congressman believes that national security overrides secrecy, he can put my testimony out there. That's what happened with Daniel Ellsberg. Senator Gravel poured out everything he had said before the congress because it was in the interests of the country. These people like John Ashcroft are actually endangering our national security by destroying civil liberties with such things as the Patriot Act. They are just cowards. They lack guts.
CD: So, have you given up on the elected officials to stick up for you?
SE: No, I haven't given up. I hope that there is at least one person in the congress who will convey my testimony in public. But I'm really starting to believe that the best way to do it is through the press. I recently briefed Congress Waxman (CA), again gave him all the information, but nothing so far. I went back into the SCIF, a black hole into which all information disappears and never comes out. Boy, if only those walls could talk.
CD: Have you ever thought of Representative Ron Paul of Texas? He strikes me as someone who would be sympathetic to your plight.
SE: I know of him, and I have heard that an activist person has been sending his office all the details of my case, but I have not received any request from them.
CD: Is that the way it has to work?
SE: Yes, I have to receive an official request first in order to be interviewed.
FBI Reforms: Still on Hold
CD: Even though you haven't been working for the FBI for over two years, can you give us any updates on the present state of affairs there? Have your revelations shaken things up at all, regarding the way they do business?
SE: From the few contacts I still have, 'cause most of them have been cowed into silence by now, nothing has changed.
CD: Haven't they even attempted any reforms in the translations department?
CD: You said that poor Kevin Taskasen remains the only Turkish-language "translator" there. Given the vast importance of the Turkic languages in today's most important national security issues, why does the FBI put such a low priority on finding good Turkish translators?
SE: That I don't know. But I agree with you, it really doesn't make sense.
Future Plans and Final Thoughts
CD: Do you think you were naοve about what it would be like, working for the FBI in the post-9/11 world?
SE: The amount of sh*t you get exposed to on the inside strips you of any innocence you may have had. In an analogy, take the war on drugs. They say they're fighting drugs and keeping America safe by attacking the low-level dealers and addicts on the street but leaving the big-time, well-connected dealers alone. That is just disgusting.
CD: What are you planning to do next in your life?
SE: I will start a Ph.D. in January, either in the subject of public policy with relation to transparency, or else conflict resolution analysis, regarding Central Asia and Turkey.
CD: Would you work for government again, after what you've been through?
SE: I'd rather be a watchdog you know, someone who would push Congress to follow their duties and exercise some oversight. It's really incredible, when I asked a congressman's staff whether they have oversight, they say, "Well we do, but we don't." When I asked what that meant, he said, "Well, we can make a statement, but the DOJ doesn't listen to us." Then don't say you have it, if you don't!
CD: Have you any plans to write a book about your experiences someday?
SE: Well, maybe someday, but not until all of these legal battles are finished and everything is done. But these past two years I've been staying away from anything that can even remotely be seen as cashing in the old "oh, she's out to make a profit from this" type of accusation. It's very frustrating for the government that they haven't been able to smear my name.
SE: Yes, that's one of the first things they try. To dig up dirt. They have their own ways of doing it to look into your background, check any arrest record, if you've lied somewhere, etc. But they haven't been able to do that in my case and it is very frustrating for them.
CD: If you win the suit, what will happen next? Will you speak openly about everything you know?
SE: Well, just winning the suit is not enough. As long as the Justice Department considers this information related to my case a "state secret," they will use everything they can to quash it. Even if the judge rules and says no state secrets privileges can be granted, the DOJ will still buy time by appealing. So this will most likely be a long and difficult battle.
CD: If your full testimony is heard by the public, who or what agencies are going to be in the biggest trouble?
SE: Well, as for agencies I guess the DOJ, FBI, State Department. But in a way these agencies get some kind of immunity when you charge them like this I hate to see how a lot of agents get stigmatized in this. Most of the field agents I met in the FBI were good, honest and hardworking individuals. They were trying to do their best, but up against this ingrown bureaucracy this is where you have the problem, as will as with certain elected officials.
CD: What are they so afraid of?
SE: They're afraid of information, of the truth coming out, and accountability the whole accountability issue that will arise. But it's not as complicated as it might seem. If they were to allow the whole picture to emerge, it would just boil down to a whole lot of money and illegal activities.
CD: Hmm, well I know you can't name names, but can you tell me if any specific officials will suffer if your testimony comes out?
SE: Yes. Certain elected officials will stand trial and go to prison.