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Wednesday, June 19, 2002


Two FBI Whistle-Blowers Allege Lax Security, Possible Espionage

By James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writer

IN separate cases, two new FBI whistle-blowers are alleging mismanagement and lax security — and in one case possible espionage — among those who translate and oversee some of the FBI’s most sensitive, top-secret wiretaps in counterintelligence and counterterrorist investigations.

The allegations of one of the whistle-blowers have prompted two key senators — Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) — to pose critical questions about the FBI division working on the front line of gathering and analyzing wiretaps.

That whistle-blower, Sibel Edmonds, 32, a former wiretap translator in the Washington field office, raised suspicions about a co-worker’s connections to a group under surveillance.

Under pressure, FBI officials have investigated and verified the veracity of parts of Edmonds’s story, according to documents and people familiar with an FBI briefing of congressional staff. Leahy and Grassley summoned the FBI to Capitol Hill on Monday for a private explanation, people familiar with the briefing said.

The FBI confirmed that Edmonds’s co-worker had been part of an organization [Website: The Mossad] that was a target of top-secret surveillance and that the same co-worker had “unreported contacts” with a foreign government official subject to the surveillance, according to a letter from the two senators to the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General. In addition, the linguist failed to translate two communications from the targeted [Israeli] foreign government official, the letter said.

“This whistleblower raised serious questions about potential security problems and the integrity of important translations made by the FBI,” Grassley said in a statement. “She made these allegations in good faith and even though the deck was stacked against her. The FBI even admits to a number of her allegations, and on other allegations, the bureau’s explanation leaves me skeptical.”

The allegations add a new dimension to the growing criticism of the FBI, which has centered in recent weeks on the bureau’s failure to heed internal warnings about al Qaeda leading up to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Last month, FBI agent Coleen Rowley also complained about systemic problems before the attacks. Rowley works in Minneapolis, where agents in August unsuccessfully tried to get a search warrant to look into the laptop computer of a man now described as the “20th hijacker.”

Finding capable and trustworthy translators has been a special challenge in the terrorism war. FBI officials told government auditors in January that translator shortages have resulted in “the accumulation of thousands of hours of audio tapes and pages” of untranslated material. After the attacks, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III issued a plea for translators, and hundreds of people applied.

Margaret Gulotta, chief of language services at the FBI, said the bureau has hired 400 translators in two years, significantly reducing the backlog on high-priority cases while upholding strict background checks. “We have not compromised our standards in terms of language proficiency and security,” Gulotta said.

In the second whistle-blower case, John M. Cole, 41, program manager for FBI foreign intelligence investigations covering India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, said counterintelligence and counterterrorism training has declined drastically in recent years as part of a continuing pattern of poor management.

Cole also said he had observed what he believed was a security lapse regarding the screening and hiring of translators. “I thought we had all these new security procedures in place, in light of [FBI spy Robert P.] Hanssen,” Cole said. “No one is going by the rules and regulations and whatever policy may be implemented.”

Edmonds and Cole have written about their concerns to high-level FBI officials. Edmonds wrote to Dale Watson, the bureau’s counterterrorism chief, and Cole wrote to Mueller. Both cases have been referred to Justice’s Office of the Inspector General, which is investigating, government officials confirmed.

The FBI said it was unable to corroborate an allegation by Edmonds that she was approached to join the targeted group. Edmonds said she told Dennis Saccher, a special agent in the Washington field office who was conducting the surveillance, about the co-worker’s actions and Saccher replied, “It looks like espionage to me.” Saccher declined to comment when contacted by a reporter.

Edmonds was fired in March after she reported her concerns. Government officials said the FBI fired her because her “disruptiveness” hurt her on-the-job “performance.” Edmonds said she believes she was fired in retaliation for reporting on her co-worker.

Edmonds began working at the FBI in late September. In an interview, she said she became particularly alarmed when she discovered that a recently hired FBI translator was saying that she belonged to the Middle Eastern organization whose taped conversations she had been translating for FBI counterintelligence agents. Officials asked that the name of the target group not be revealed for national security reasons.

Washington Post reporter discovered Edmonds’s name in her whistle-blowing letters to federal and congressional officials and approached her for an interview.

Edmonds said that on several occasions, the translator tried to recruit her to join the targeted foreign group. “This person told us she worked for our target organization,” Edmonds said in an interview. “These are the people we are targeting, monitoring.”

Edmonds would not identify the other translator, but The Post has learned from other sources that she is a 33-year-old U.S. citizen whose native country is home to the target group. Both Edmonds and the other translator are U.S. citizens who trace their ethnicity to the same Middle Eastern country. Reached by telephone last week, the woman, who works under contract for the FBI’s Washington field office, declined to comment.

In December, Edmonds said the woman and her husband, a U.S. military officer, suggested during a hastily arranged visit to Edmonds’s Northern Virginia home on a Sunday morning that Edmonds join the group.

“He said, ‘Are you a member of the particular organization?’ ” Edmonds recalled the woman’s husband saying. “[He said,] ‘It’s a very good place to be a member. There are a lot of advantages of being with this organization and doing things together’ — this is our targeted organization — ‘and one of the greatest things about it is you can have an early, an unexpected, early retirement. And you will be totally set if you go to that specific country [i.e. Israel].’ “

Edmonds also said the woman’s husband told her she would be admitted to the group, especially if she said she worked for the FBI.

Later, Edmonds said, the woman approached her with a list dividing up individuals whose phone lines were being secretly tapped: Under the plan, the woman would translate conversations of her former co-workers in the target organization, and Edmonds would handle other phone calls. Edmonds said she refused and that the woman told her that her lack of cooperation could put her family in danger.

Edmonds said she also brought her concerns to her supervisor and other FBI officials in the Washington field office. When no action was taken, she said, she reported her concerns to the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility, then to Justice’s inspector general.

“Investigations are being compromised,” Edmonds wrote to the inspector general’s office in March. “Incorrect or misleading translations are being sent to agents in the field. Translations are being blocked and circumvented.”

Government officials familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified said that both Edmonds and the woman were given polygraph examinations by the FBI and that both passed.

Edmonds had been found to have breached security, FBI officials told Senate investigators. Edmonds said that two of those alleged breaches were related to specific instruction by a supervisor to prepare a report on the other translator on her home computer.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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