WASHINGTON, June 27 (UPI) -- The federal government's secrecy watchdog is conducting an inquiry into whether Attorney General John Ashcroft acted properly in classifying information relating to a lawsuit brought by a whistleblower from the FBI's translation unit.
Sibel Edmonds, a contract translator who blew the whistle on mismanagement, inefficiency and serious security problems, is suing the Department of Justice for violating her First Amendment rights by quashing her claims against the FBI with the rarely invoked "state-secrets privilege."
Her case relates to the way the translation unit in the bureau's Washington field office was run immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. Edmonds has made shocking allegations about incompetence, lax internal security and deliberate efforts to frustrate the unit's work -- some of which have been acknowledged to be true by the FBI.
The translation issue goes to the heart of the pre-Sept. 11 failure of the FBI and the intelligence community in general to catch the attackers and stop the plot that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Secrecy experts say the affair appears to be part of a pattern of behavior by the Bush administration: the abuse of classification procedures to stifle public debate about politically sensitive aspects of the war against terrorism.
In April, as part of Edmonds' suit, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the hand over of any unclassified documents or other information the government had relating to her case -- specifically, information that had been briefed to members of Congress and their staffs at two meetings with senior FBI officials in 2002.
About two weeks after the order was made the staffers received an e-mail message from one of their colleagues explaining that the FBI "now considers some of the information contained in (those) briefings to be classified."
The briefings dealt in detail with Edmonds' allegations: that many of those hired to work in the unit could barely speak English; that they left secure laptop computers lying around while they went to lunch; that they took classified material home with them; and -- even more disturbing -- that some had undeclared contacts with foreign organizations that were under surveillance.
She said bureau operations -- including counter-terror ones -- were compromised as a result.
Bureau officials at the briefings "admitted most of the facts (about Edmonds' allegations) but denied the conclusions," Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a longtime critic of the FBI, said in a statement provided to UPI earlier this year.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing June 8, Ashcroft told lawmakers that he had personally signed off the classification decision, which he justified on national-security grounds.
"If there is spilled milk and there is no damage done," he said, "if you can recollect it and put it back in the jar, you're better off than saying, 'Well, it's spilled, no damage has been done, we might as well wait until damage is done.'"
Others argued that the milk could not be put back in the jar.
Sen. Grassley told Ashcroft that it was "a little ludicrous ... that you classify this information now," after it had been so widely aired.
In an interview with United Press International, J. William Leonard, head of the Information Security Oversight Office, the government's secrecy watchdog, said that the FBI told him it was not retrospectively classifying or re-classifying any information -- the material had been secret all along.
"What seems to have happened," he said, was that "well-meaning (FBI officials) attempted to be responsive to congressional requests for information by 'talking around' what was classified. In doing so, they appear to have inadvertently made an unauthorized disclosure of classified information."
Officials who work the liaison between Congress and federal agencies told UPI that such disclosures do happen from time to time.
But Mark Zaid, Edmonds' attorney, said officials had not behaved as if the contents of the briefings were classified until they needed to do so in order to quash his client's lawsuit.
"The content of those briefings was widely disseminated to the media; it was referred to repeatedly in congressional correspondence. It was discussed by senior FBI officials in meetings with Edmonds' attorneys and others, none of whom had security clearances," he said.
"At no time was there any indication that this information was classified until the judge ordered them to turn it over."
When UPI asked FBI spokesmen for comment about Edmonds' allegations in March, officials declined to comment on certain allegations against individuals on privacy grounds but said nothing about any information relating to the case being classified.
"This is all about the lawsuit," Zaid concluded. "It is the (Justice) Department's lawyers scrambling to try and gain a litigation advantage."
Leonard said that there were still several unanswered questions in his mind about the matter and that his inquiries were continuing.
"I am aware that there are aspects of this case on which I don't have all the information I need," he said. But he added that "At this point in time, I have no information that would lead me to disbelieve the FBI's representations that this material was classified all along."
Leonard said that it was clear there were "lessons to be learned ... about how classification decisions are documented and conveyed to cleared personnel.
"What procedures are there for making sure people know what's classified and what's not?" he asked. "It's pretty fundamental."
"The government's position is, to say the least, confused," commented Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, which "works to challenge excessive government secrecy and to promote public oversight," according to its Web site.
Aftergood argued that this lack of clarity was a symptom of a deeper problem.
"The fact that officials briefed openly on this information shows that it's not obvious, even to them, what is classified and why. No one needs to be told that information about sources and methods or ongoing intelligence operations should not be revealed -- it's obvious.
"The fact that it was so clearly not obvious in this case leads one to question whether it was properly classified."
Edmonds has answered that question to her own satisfaction already. "This is simply an attempt to silence me and to stifle debate about the FBI's record on fighting terrorism and on Sept. 11 in particular," she told UPI.
"Nothing more, nothing less."
Zaid passed to UPI copies of correspondence about Edmonds' allegations that had been released to her under the Freedom of Information Act. "Those letters, which set out her allegations in some detail, are stamped 'unclassified,'" he pointed out. "As of January 2003, this information was not considered secret by the FBI."
But Leonard said that releasing the letters did not mean they contained no classified information. "This information was quite clearly not in the control of the executive branch," he said. "Officials do not have a basis to withhold public material that may contain classified information."
Aftergood said that the controversy had had at least one positive effect from the government's point of view.
"Tactically, it has changed the subject from a discussion about the substances of Edmonds' very serious allegations to one about the finer points of classification policy."
He said the case seemed to fit an emerging pattern. "There have been a disturbing number of cases recently where substantive discussion of and inquiry into important subjects have been sidelined by official secrecy and issues of classification."
He cited the prisoner mistreatment scandal at Abu Ghraib as one example.
FBI spokesman Joe Parrish told UPI Sunday that the matter involved both classified information and a pending case and that the bureau would not comment.
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