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.
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
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.
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