In Gag We Trust?
In Gag We Trust?
FBI language specialist Sibel Edmonds was fired from her job with the FBI's Washington Field Office in March 2002. Her crime was reporting security breaches, cover-ups, blocking of intelligence, and the bribery of U.S. individuals including high-ranking officials. The State Secret Privilege has often been invoked to block court proceedings on her case, and the U.S. Congress has even been gagged to prevent further discussion.
Edmonds uncovered, for example, a covert relationship between Turkish groups and former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who reportedly received tens of thousands of dollars in bribes in return for withdrawing the Armenian Genocide Resolution from the House floor in 2000.
Born in Iran in 1970, Edmonds received her BA in criminal justice and psychology from George Washington University and her MA in public policy and international commerce from George Mason University. She is the founder and director of the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition (NSWBC) and in 2006, received the PEN/Newman's Own First Amendment Award. She speaks Turkish, Farsi and Azerbaijani.
This interview was conducted in Washington on April 23. To follow the development of her case, visit www.justacitizen.com.
Khatchig Mouradian—It's been more than five years since you first contacted the Senate Judiciary Committee to reveal the story on Turkish bribery of high-level U.S. officials. Can you tell us about how this has evolved since then, and where it stands now?
Sibel Edmonds—Sure. It's been slightly over five years since I went to the Senate Judiciary Committee and briefed both Senator Charles Grassley's (R-Iowa) staff and Senator Patrick Leahy's (D-Vt.) staff in a classified fashion, giving them the specific document numbers, document names, names of specific targets and detailing the issues related to my case. And as you might remember, a few months after I briefed the Senate Judiciary Committee, both Senators started speaking out pretty loudly in the media. We had the CBS 60 Minutes segment when Senator Grassley showed up and said this is outrageous. Even people within the FBI have confirmed all the stories and said we need to turn the FBI upside down on this issue. Senator Leahy was making similar statements and both Senators were trying to put together a hearing on this case. I was later told that the Chairman at the time prevented a hearing and some people—including good FBI agents who would be telling the truth under oath—from testifying and shedding light on the issue.
Two years later, we had the unclassified version of that report issued by the Inspector General's Office. This is the Department of Justice's own Inspector General's Office. After two years of investigating, the report confirmed my own reports. It found that although these allegations were supported by documents and other witnesses, the FBI refused to conduct a follow-up or an investigation—a real investigation—on this case. So you have this case which for the past five years has been confirmed by Congressional sources, and people familiar with my case, and the Department of Justice's Inspector General's Office, and has never been contradicted or denied by the Justice Department or the FBI, and still nothing has been done.
There has been no hearing and nobody has been held accountable. We are basically where we started and I find that really appalling. It is a very sad situation and not only for me or my case. Many people think this is about one whistleblower, one language specialist who worked for the FBI and was wrongfully terminated. But I wouldn't have been terminated if I hadn't brought forth issues that were important to the American public, and even to people outside the United States. This case sheds light on several important areas, including our foreign policy, which is hypocrisy-ridden. We're not talking only about foreign individuals; we're talking about our own, about U.S. officials who have engaged in actions that are against the American public's best interests and what we stand for. But the American people still don't know about this case, and Congress has done nothing despite the fact that they have been fully briefed and have gotten full confirmation.
K.M.—This makes one wonder, who is actually working for the people and who is working for his own personal and private gains?
S.E.—This is important, the issue of self-interest versus the interests of the American public, especially when you're talking about public servants. These are the people who have been given access to our national security-related issues and top-secret documents. And I emphasize that this is not about one party, this is not an issue of right wing versus left wing, this is not an issue of one administration against another. Because when you really go deep into these cases, you find that these people—these U.S. entities, U.S. officials—have been misusing and abusing their positions for a while. And we have been looking the other way. And the mainstream media has been looking the other way. These are not top-secret issues. All you have to do is take a look at these people.
For example, look at Mr. Marc Grossman. He used to be the U.S. ambassador in Turkey and used his position within the State Department to secure future higher-level positions while in office—and I would like to emphasize this—while in office and with several agencies knowing about it. Some people in these agencies wanted to investigate these cases but they were prevented from going forward.
In my case, with this one example that I gave you, I was told by my bosses—and these are the "good people" bosses, these are the agents that I work with—that the Pentagon and the State Department were pressuring the Justice Department to silence the case. And just take a look at where Mr. Grossman is today. Within a few months after he gave his resignation, he obtained a position with a semi-legitimate Turkish company that is supplying him with a very attractive monetary reward.
And then you can start going around and looking at similar cases, such as Mr. Douglas Feith and Mr. Richard Perle. They were registered as foreign agents for Turkey between 1988 and 1995. These were very lucrative positions, and they were not representing the American government at that point. So once they resumed their high-level positions within the U.S. government in 2000, do you think anything changed in terms of which interests they represented?
And unfortunately you also see this from the Congressional side. You saw it in the late '80s and early '90s with Congressman [Stephen] Solarz, and again we saw it with Congressman—and later Chairman—Livingston and the position he obtained as a representative of a foreign interest. And we may see it shortly with current Congressmen, such as former chairman Hastert. And it is for the American public, for our mainstream media to really look hard at these issues. This is an example of one country [Turkey] we are talking about right now, one case. How many others are there? And why are they looking the other way? Do our people know, are they aware, that they are trusting and giving the authority to people who are not representing them?
K.M.—You are just one person and you're a translator working on issues that have to do mainly with Turkey. You had some 200 colleagues. So one wonders how many stories like this there are. This one story, your story, by itself, is enough to show how corrupt the system is.
S.E.—My case has been known to a certain degree because of the activities that I have been engaging in, in terms of going to courts, going to Congress, etc. There are similar cases we are not hearing about. For example, the Larry Franklin case, with the espionage case that they pursued with AIPAC. And what the American public doesn't know is the fact that there were other counter-intelligence operations within the FBI that obtained far more information not only limited to Mr. Franklin. Other operations were shut down in 2000 and 2001 because they ended up going to higher levels and involving way too many people. I'm talking about individuals who are breaking the law, misusing the trust and abusing their power, and in some cases I would even say engaging in treason.
Again it's very easy to see what happened with my case. What kind of example is my case presenting to those other people who may want to do the right thing and come forward? They would say it doesn't make a difference at the end, because I pursued every channel possible. I went as high as I could go with the courts, including the Supreme Court, and as you know, they issued a gag order on me several times and invoked the State Secrets Privilege. They say that everything about my case—including where I was born, including the languages I speak, everything—is classified. I'm prevented from discussing whether or not I'm right. And I went all the way to Congress, I did the right thing. I was not what they call a "leaker" who goes straight to the media and starts divulging classified documents. I went to the appropriate committees, the Judiciary Committee and the Intelligence Committee, too, by the way, and the House and Senate... I went through the other legitimate channels—the courts, the Inspector General's Office, which is the executive branch. I tried the media. So I don't blame those people that get pessimistic and say it doesn't make a difference, or think they'll lose their job or possibly go to jail. Many of these people are the breadwinners for their families. They're conscientious people, but they have put 15-20 years into their careers and think, "Oh, I'm 5 years away from my retirement and I don't want to damage that." So you have many reasons why more people aren't coming forward.
They make an example out of you. Because if one case, let's say my case, would really bring justice and accountability, you would see so many people doing the same thing. And how many times—let's just look at the past decade—have you seen a legitimate whistleblower from any of these agencies come forward and prevail? I don't think you can name one case.
You're also looking at all the other channels being culprits, sometimes without even intending. For example, there is a lot of blame to be placed on our mainstream media today. Willingly or not, they have become accomplices by not reporting what they should be reporting, and not investigating what they should be investigating. They have abdicated their responsibilities. And where do we look at when we talk about issues such as accountability investigations? We look at Congress. And they have been a major reason we are not seeing more people coming forward from the FBI, agents that I worked with—solid, patriotic, good Americans, dedicated people. They were as outraged as I was when I was going through these cases and reporting them internally. If one of these committees, be it the Judiciary Committee or the Government Affairs Committee in the House, would set a hearing and call these individuals to testify, these agents would tell the truth under oath.
K.M.—So in your opinion, what is the definition of an agent today in the U.S.? What is his job? An important portion of his work is what we are talking about, things that are actually not being dealt with and that are being covered up. So it seems that agents are "good agents" as long as they're dealing with the enemy. But this enemy is decided by people who are often corrupt and even committing treason...
S.E.—I can't speak for other agents but I can speak for the FBI, and within the FBI you have different types of operations. For example, if they are looking at criminal cases, it is the agent's job to collect evidence with court warrants, etc., to go after the criminals and bring them to justice. To a certain degree, the same concept holds true for counter-intelligence operations, the one division within the FBI that I consider the most important, but unfortunately the worst run. You have agents and translators and analysts overseeing the activities—sometimes criminal or espionage-related—of foreign entities in our country. Now, if they come across criminal activities and U.S. persons engaged in these what they should be doing and what they are able to do is to take it, report it, go to the Justice Department, go to the courts and start parallel investigations, no longer under counter-intelligence but through criminal or espionage cases. Now, by accident, this happened with this AIPAC case. It started in the Washington Field Office where I worked long before I started working with the FBI, and with the translators and the analysts and agents I spoke with, that operation started as counter-intelligence. The targets were not even U.S. individuals. They were, let's say hypothetically speaking, AIPAC and Israeli Embassy entities. It is after they came across these explosive activities and after a certain agent in charge decided to really tackle this—and this was before 2000—that they opened a parallel investigation. This is when we later heard about Feith's office and Larry Franklin.
Now the same thing was about to take place with Turkish counter-intelligence in the main portion of the documented—wiretapped or paper—operations that I translated verbatim not only for the Washington Field Office but also for the Chicago and New Jersey offices. They were obtained before 2001. If we were to put a date on it you're looking at end of 1996 to 2001. Now, in 1998 and 1999, there were so many pieces of evidence of U.S. individuals' involvement. We're talking about people with official positions, whether they were in the State Department or the Pentagon or the U.S. Congress. The agents did the right thing again by starting a parallel investigation that targeted individuals who were possibly committing acts of treason.
However, as I was told by first-source agents I was working with, this was put on hold in 1999 because President Clinton was then going through the Lewinsky scandal. After the current administration came into power and after I was working there, the agents were told to shut down. The people who made that decision were not the Justice Department or the FBI, and that's what I try to emphasize all the time—they were pressured, they were forced by higher-up forces within the Pentagon and the State Department. And what was their reasoning behind the scenes? I don't know, I wasn't there, but they gave similar explanations and justifications with the courts: "You're talking about very sensitive diplomatic relations." And in fact, then-Attorney General Ashcroft said this in his declaration when he invoked the State Secrets Privilege in my case. He said that exposing these issues in courts, whether or not I'm right, would damage certain sensitive diplomatic relations and would hurt certain U.S. foreign business relations. In this case we know one of the countries is Turkey. So you have a U.S. citizen here who has been deprived of her First Amendment rights. Gagged. I mean, is that an American concept, gagging a person? You're not talking about an enemy combatant, you're not talking about a terrorist suspect. You're looking at a tax-payer, a law-abiding American citizen. So these business relations, these diplomatic relations have justified depriving a U.S. citizen of her First Amendment rights, of her Fourth Amendment rights in court. In fact, the U.S. State Department did a retroactive classification illegally and Congress was effectively gagged in May 2004. They're not even saying what diplomatic relations they refer to. Are they ashamed of it? Are we talking about billions of dollars of weapons procurement? Why don't they be more specific? Because this is top-secret, classified stuff. That's why I have been writing these papers, relying on outside sources, getting all the data. You're looking at $5 billion every two years of weapons procurements? That's not top-secret. Who benefits from this? What companies? Who are the individuals who are benefiting from this? And is there anything in the issues that I dealt with that if exposed would harm the Americans and their security? None. None whatsoever.
In fact, they are issues and they are cases that would help with their national security because the same activities also involve money laundering or certain narcotic activities. All you have to do is look at the State Department's own reports on Turkey and opium. Ninety-two percent of the heroin supplied in Europe is coming through Turkey, and it's being marketed and distributed by Turkish individuals. This is not classified. This is within the State Department's own report. The poppies are being produced in Afghanistan and Taliban-esque people are getting benefits, and Al-Qaeda people are getting the benefits of these poppies being sold to individuals in Turkey who then distribute and provide 92 percent of Europe's heroin market. Have we said "clamp down on these narcotic activities because it's helping the terrorists, and the terrorists are threats to our national security?" No, we haven't.
Time Magazine ran a piece about 11 pages long on how the Afghanistan opium production has increased. They also put the value on that opium production. And there were statements from various Congressmen including Walter Jones who went to Afghanistan saying a lot of it goes to support Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The number was somewhere between $38 billion to $50 billion a year. This same article limited the issue of poppy production to some farmers. And you're looking at these Afghans in shalvars cultivating the poppies there, and you think, these people aren't capable of managing a $50 billion industry. They only get a small share. Processing the poppies into heroin and then transporting them through the Balkan route is done by Turkish individuals. And you're not looking at street thugs in Turkey, you're looking at the Turkish military and the Turkish police. In 2000, a professor in Turkey issued a documented report saying that a quarter of Turkey's economy relies on heroin production and distribution. Of course, he had to escape the country, go to Germany and ask for political asylum because he committed treason by criticizing the Turkish government.
The Time Magazine article didn't talk about the main actors, the big people, the powerful ones who are distributing, processing, marketing and laundering the proceeds. Those people are not touched. If you look at the report you'll see the countries involved—Turkey, Cyprus, the UAE. But they were conveniently left out of the Time Magazine article, leaving any American to conclude that the farmers are making $50 billion a year. Again, the culprit is Time Magazine because that is not the case.
While the report shows Turkish, UAE and Pakistani involvement, we say they are our allies, we don't want to touch them, we don't want to turn them off. In fact, we have lots of good business and sensitive diplomatic relations with them, as Don Ashcroft put it. Now if one of them were part of the axis of evil, if one of them was Syria, if one of them was Iran, if one of them was Korea, if it was Saddam, you would see the stink they would raise—how Saddam's country and people are helping the Taliban with their finances and helping Al-Qaeda with these cases. But there was this big oops! They're our very close allies, the ones who we are giving billions of dollars of aid to, the ones who come back and buy our weapons. We can't mess around with things like that. We have too many powerful people, too many powerful companies that are benefiting from this. There is this huge lobby industry that is benefiting from this.
Who is representing the American people? Well we know former chairman Mr. Livingston today is representing these outside interests, therefore our Congress is representing these foreign powers. But who is really representing the American public? And how? It's very hard to see the track record. And these are the issues that you wish the mainstream media here in this country would cover, and they're not.
K.M.—Let us talk about you: your frustrations, your feelings. How do you deal with all of this?
S.E.—I can't say it's been easy, the anger and disappointment over knowing that my country, my government, has let me down, that the mainstream media has let all of us down. With many whistleblowers, the pressure reaches a point where they either have nervous breakdowns or they explode. And many of them do explode or they get disgusted and go away. After one or two years of fighting, they say the heck with it, I'm just going to leave.
If you explode, you have given them the perfect excuse to point at you and say, look this person is crazy, she's not legitimate. If you go and expose some documents, they have an excuse to say you have breached security and should be jailed—and again, they benefit. They get away with this because nobody has been willing to come forward, and right now, it's only me. If there had been one or two other agents who had committed to that much compromise and sacrifice and come forward, maybe we would have seen some progress. But the fear factor is so great out there.
I've lived in this country for 18 years and am an American citizen. Maybe a lot of people born here take their citizenship for granted, but for me it was a conscious choice. At that point I was a student of this country's history and its laws, and I was mesmerized. As part of that oath you make a commitment to stand up for this country's constitution and rights and people, whether the enemies threatening it are foreign or domestic. And I did take it seriously and I do take it seriously, and I also look at the alternative—the alternative being count your losses and go away; it's just going to get worse.
Again, many Americans think this is about one whistleblower who lost her job, that this is one case, and they don't see themselves affected by it. With September 11, they saw themselves directly affected—"I can be next." Well, I'm trying to tell them that with the money laundering, the narcotics, their own representatives going against their own interests, they're all being affected by the cover-ups.
It's been five years, and I never thought it would continue for this long. I went to the Judiciary Committee in March 2002, and I thought that was it. I thought that all I had to do was give them the documents, give them the facts, the names, and everything would be taken care of. It was not. When I went to the Inspector General's Office, I thought that was it. When I went to the courts, I thought this was it, it was done. I never thought I would be sitting here, five years later, saying that everything was shut down successfully, and no accountability and no justice whatsoever had taken place.
I set up this organization [www.justacitizen.com] to encourage other whistleblowers, those good agents out there who dealt with Turkish counter-intelligence operations in the FBI. And that's not the only agency. There are other agencies in this nation, within our government, with good conscientious people who should be saying enough is enough, it's time to stand up.
K.M.—What can be done? What can the ordinary citizen do?
S.E.—It boils down to the people standing up and demanding their rights, the right actions. I don't want to get my job back with the FBI. That's not what I'm after. I'm not asking to be compensated in any way for my suffering.
I can never go back to Turkey and visit my family. I have been blacklisted because I have committed, as any good journalist in Turkey would automatically commit: the act of treason. Under their laws, anyone who criticizes Turkey, or shows it under some negative light or hurts certain official thugs there, is treasonous and should be arrested and taken to military tribunals. All you have to do is read the Human Rights Watch reports and see what happens to good reporters in Turkey. If they're lucky, by the way, they will end up in a military tribunal, if not, they will end up dead or disappear. If you look at the tens of thousands of people who have disappeared in the past 10 years in Turkey for political reasons, the number is astonishing for a country that is considered a democracy and a great ally. You have tens of thousands of good activist students who have just disappeared into thin air and nobody knows where they are. It happened once upon a time in Argentina and Chile, but I don't know how easy it is to say that things like that happen in a great democracy and an ally country.
But I'm not asking to be compensated, I'm not asking to get my position back. All I have been asking is for justice to take place, for the American people to know what's going on, and for those people who are working against their interests to be held accountable.
Some respected, great Representatives, Democratic Congressmen, have expressed interest in my case. The leader of that group was Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), and I briefed his staff several times, by giving them the same details I gave five years ago to the Judiciary Committee. They obtained the classified version of the Inspector General's report two years ago and they were outraged. I have several letters from Congressman Waxman saying he finds these gag orders stunning and that the Republicans were preventing a hearing from taking place on my case. Well, in January, after we went through the change [in Congress], Congressman Waxman is now Chairman Waxman and there is no power within Congress that can prevent him from holding this hearing. He has the jurisdiction, the authority to put the hearing there, and I have already obtained the consent and names of conscientious, good agents. One of them was the head of the Turkish counter-intelligence operations who actually retired two years ago. They're all willing to come forward and testify on all the issues I have been gagged on. And that gag doesn't work in Congress during a hearing.
So in January, after the election results, especially since we have such a great Chairman today, 30 organizations have put together this petition addressed to Chairman Waxman saying you have been promising us for the past five years. These are major organizations, and we call them trans-partisan, because there are organizations from the right, organizations from the left, organizations that are whistleblower-related such as the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), the Government Accountability Project (GAP), the National Whistleblower Center, human rights organizations, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), civil liberties-related organizations such as the American Civil Liberties union (ACLU). We have 30 solid organizations. According to the ACLU, there has been no case of an American citizen who has had so many gag orders issued on her.
We also had 15,000 citizens sign the petition, and they delivered it to Chairman Waxman's office in March 2007, just over a month ago. And based on the office's own report, tens of thousands of people in the past 3-4 weeks have called to say, well, when are you going to hold a hearing?
But we have received no response and we don't know why. None of these organizations know why because they have all the facts, they have all the confirmation, they have the IG report, they have the executive branch's own report saying she's credible and her allegations have been supported by other witnesses and documents. We are not talking about allegations. We are talking about facts, documented and witnessed facts.
And I still believe that the Americans who care about their rights can make this happen. Maybe it hasn't happened because one of the factors that is not present there is the mainstream media. We know the mainstream media has such influence over the Congress. Maybe Congress is not finding it worthy of their attention despite all these severe consequences because the media isn't there.
The citizens can change this, the constituents of Chairman Henry Waxman in California, in the LA area, can change that. They can say, you represent us, you represent our interests, and you are the chairman of the Government Reform Committee. So after not hearing back from Chairman Waxman through this petition and 30 organizations, I'm trying to reach out to those constituents in California, I'm trying to reach out to all citizens in this country and say, forget about me, this is not about Sibel Edmonds. Let's go to the core issues: What was it that I reported that caused all these gag orders and firings and threats? What was it? What I reported had nothing to do with me. It had to do with the interests of the American public being stomped upon. It had to do with elected officials abusing their authority to obtain lucrative early retirement positions afterwards as representatives of foreign interests. And this is very important. In order to obtain it afterwards they had to serve those foreign interests while they were working and had those positions. In every single one of them that's how it happens. You start serving the interests of outside influences before you obtain your positions afterwards and say bye to your civil service career. And that is, especially in some cases, criminal. That is not something that should be tolerated by this country, and we need to set an example of those people.
We have the facts, we have the documents, we have the witnesses, and it's time to do it. So stand up and call Chairman Waxman's office, keep calling until you get an answer on when the hearing will take place. For each citizen it may cost four minutes. But the benefit to this country, and the number of issues that we are going to shed light on, is worth it. And if it was not, they would not have gone this far to gag it. I have been fighting very hard, but they have been fighting very hard, too.
This is unprecedented. If I am the most gagged woman in the history of this country, and if they have gone as far as invoking the States Secrets Privilege, the issue is important enough. So for anyone who may say, well, how do I know this case is credible? I'll tell you that there is a report, there are statements from bipartisan senators, Senator Grassley, Senator Leahy, Congressman Waxman. And these are all on the record establishing the credibility of the case.
Call Chairman Waxman and write to him and do not stop until we have this hearing in place, and we have the agents testifying. I'm going to emphasize two things here: a) that they testify on oath, and b) that the hearings be public. I have had some hearings, and they have been behind closed doors in the Congress. I have briefed them. They already have this information. It's the American public's turn to hear about this.
It's possible that in light of the Chairman's decision to hold a hearing, the government comes in and says it has to be in close session and not in public because these are classified issues. But they're not. If that happens, we won't get anywhere because then it's futile. I would not even be willing to testify because I have already done so. Five years ago I gave them testimony behind closed doors. So did other witnesses. It's time to have open, public hearings and have people under oath. I will testify under oath, and the consequences of lying are severe.
So let's make this happen, and let's say that when all channels we rely upon—be it the courts and the Congress and the executive branch and the mainstream media—fail us, we still should move forward and not stop, and reach out to the American public, and make it happen. I hope we can do it, because not being able to do it sends a very bad, awful message to our children and our grandchildren, to say that active citizenry is dead in this country.
Khatchig Mouradian is a Lebanese-Armenian journalist, writer and translator. He is the editor of the Boston-based The Armenian Weekly (www.armenianweekly.com), where this interview originally appeared.