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9/11 families support FBI whistleblower

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor   |   Jan. 25, 2005 at 3:12 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Jan. 24 (UPI) -- A group of whistleblowers and Sept. 11 relatives, alarmed by what they say are increasingly aggressive administration efforts to suppress public discussion of problems inside the nation's security and intelligence agencies, said they will launch a campaign this week in support of fired FBI translator Sibel Edmonds.

Several Sept. 11 family groups have filed friend of the court briefs supporting Edmonds' case against the Justice Department, according to Anne Beeson, an attorney with the ACLU, who said it was the first time the groups had directly joined a whistleblower case.

"The families want accountability," Beeson told United Press International. "They want to know what went wrong and if it's been fixed." For that, she added, a proper airing of the Edmonds case was essential.

Edmonds' suit charges that she was fired in retaliation for bringing to light problems in the FBI's translation unit. Edmonds, who was a contract employee of the unit hired in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, reported widespread incompetence, sloppy handling of classified materials and the existence of a serious counter-intelligence vulnerability on the part of a colleague.

Weaknesses and failures in the FBI's intelligence gathering against terrorist cells and their supporters and associates in the United States were found to be a significant contributing factor to the success of the Sept. 11 attackers by at least two subsequent inquiries.

Edmonds said she went to congressional oversight committees after she believed her complaints to FBI management were not properly addressed. After she was fired, and after officials acknowledged in congressional briefings that many of her allegations were true, she took her story to the media.

In addition to the Edmonds case, the families and their supporters in Congress say they are unhappy that a series of reports, mandated in December 2002 by the Joint Congressional Inquiry into the attacks, have yet to be released.

The inquiry called for the inspectors general of the CIA, Justice Department and the Pentagon "to determine whether and to what extent personnel at all levels should be held accountable for any omission, commission, or failure to meet professional standards in regard to the identification, prevention, or disruption of terrorist attacks, including the events of Sept. 11, 2001."

The reports on the CIA and Pentagon have not even been finalized, although the investigative work by the CIA inspector general has long been completed.

An intelligence official familiar with the report told UPI last fall that it was being revised to take account of concerns on the part of senior CIA officials that it might have prejudged issues of professional misconduct that were properly the responsibility of the agency's management.

Two reports dealing with pre-Sept. 11 errors by the Department of Justice's inspector general have been completed but remain classified.

"The administration says secrecy is necessary to protect the country ... But ironically, in a number of different contexts, we've seen them use secrecy to hide their own blunders" or mismanagement in the national security arena, Beeson said.

William Arkin, author of a forthcoming book that reveals the codenames for hundreds of different military operations, told UPI he supported the whistleblowers campaign.

"It is dishonest to pretend that everything has been fixed since Sept. 11," he said. "So many of the problems are still there ... We should be rewarding whistleblowers, we should be seeking them out to get their views" on how to improve the agencies that failed to discover or interdict al-Qaida plot.

"Instead, we tend to vilify them. In that regard, nothing has changed since Sept. 11," said Arkin.

Justice Department officials have repeatedly declined to comment on the Edmonds case while it is ongoing, but an inspector general report found that retaliation was "in fact, the most significant factor in the FBI's decision to terminate her services."

The report -- completed last year -- was classified, but an unclassified version was released this month.

The inspector general found that the FBI had failed to "adequately investigate" Edmonds' allegations, many of which "had bases in fact."

Most seriously, the bureau conducted only a "superficial" investigation of Edwards' most disturbing allegations -- those against a co-worker she said had undisclosed ties with a group that was the subject of FBI surveillance.

In two unclassified briefings for congressional staff in June and July 2002, senior FBI officials acknowledged that the co-worker, Melek Can Dickerson, had worked for an organization that was the target of surveillance in an FBI counter-intelligence probe, until she joined the bureau it October 2001, and did not disclose the job on her application.

According to congressional staff members, bureau officials also said that she had a continuing relationship with at least two individuals who were surveillance targets in the probe. They acknowledged that Dickerson had either mistranslated or incorrectly marked "not pertinent," hundreds of telephone conversations recorded as part of the investigation, and had tried to ensure that she was given responsible for translating all the "take" from surveillance of that group of targets.

They said the FBI saw these as training issues.

The following month, in August, the Air Force said it had conducted an investigation into Dickerson's husband, Maj. Douglas Dickerson and his relationship with another organization, the American-Turkish Council.

"The findings disclosed no evidence of any deviation from the scope of his duties," according to the Air Force's inspector general.

Edmonds said the council was never a target of the probe. But she said some of those associated with it were under surveillance.

The council's Executive Director Canan Büyükünsal told UPI she had "no idea" why anyone associated with the group might be under surveillance. She said that Melek Dickerson had been an intern at the organization at some time prior to January 2001, and that Douglas Dickerson had been on the organization's mailing list, but that neither had ever been members of the group.

"We promote U.S.-Turkish relations," she said, adding they held events attended by "people who are interested in Turkey from other perspectives," as well as purely business-wise."

A veteran counter-intelligence professional told UPI last year that the case appeared to reveal continuing weaknesses in the FBI's treatment of security allegations against its employees, despite changes the bureau says it has implemented since the Robert Hansen case, where a senior agent turned out to have been a long-time Russian agent.

Edmonds' suit was dismissed last summer by the district court in Washington after the government claimed the so-called state secrets privilege.

Beeson called the claim "remarkable" in its breadth. Generally, she said, the state secrets privilege was one that was claimed over particular documents, not over an entire case "before it is even clear what the issues are going to be."

Beeson said the Justice Department was "desperate" to stop the case going to court, because "they would immediately have to concede some of the central issues," as a result of the findings of the inspector general and the contents of the congressional briefings by FBI officials acknowledging the truth of several of Edmonds' allegations.

Beeson also called for an independent inquiry into the timing of the case and the inspector general report.

"When was the report first made available to the Justice Department?" she asked. She said the department submitted classified documents to the court to support its case that Edmonds' suit should be dismissed.

"The inspector general's report basically proves (Edmonds') case" that she was terminated as retaliation, said Beeson, arguing that if the court had known of its conclusions, they would not have dismissed the case.

"If Justice Department officials had a copy of the report and didn't share that with the court, that is real malfeasance," she said.

The ACLU and Edmonds' lawyers appealed the dismissal and filed their brief on Jan. 12. The Sept. 11 groups supporting her include the 9/11 Families United to Bankrupt Terrorism -- which is supporting a class action lawsuit against alleged terror financiers including large Arab banks and officials of the Saudi government.

Six government oversight groups, including the Government Accountability Project and the National Security Archive, have also filed amicus briefs in the case.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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