Custom Search

Monday, January 21, 2008

Nuclear Secrets, FBI, Whistleblowers and the OIG Report

In researching a Times Online, potentially explosive report, there are documents of an investigation by the Department of Justice, OIG (Office of the Inspector General) that sheds new light on the story.

On January 6, 2008, Times Online came out with a report about Sibel Edmonds, a 37-year-old former Turkish language translator for the FBI, who approached the Sunday Times with a story of how foreign intelligence agents had enlisted the support of US officials to acquire a network of moles in sensitive military and nuclear institutions.

One of Edmonds’s main roles in the FBI was to translate thousands of hours of conversations by Turkish diplomatic and political targets that had been covertly recorded by the agency.

A backlog of tapes had built up, dating back to 1997, which were needed for an FBI investigation into links between the Turks and Pakistani, Israeli and US targets. Before she left the FBI in 2002 she heard evidence that pointed to money laundering, drug imports and attempts to acquire nuclear and conventional weapons technology.

“What I found was damning,” she said. “While the FBI was investigating, several arms of the government were shielding what was going on.”

Edmonds alleges that while listening to covert tape recordings, she heard evidence of a U.S. State Department official who was being paid by Turkish agents in Washington that were selling information about military and nuclear institutions on the black market, including to Pakistan.

Times Online goes on to assert that they know the name of the official and he has denied these claims.

According to Edmonds "He was aiding foreign operatives against US interests by passing them highly classified information, not only from the State Department but also from the Pentagon, in exchange for money, position and political objectives.”

Times Online, January 19, 2008, followed up on that report with an article originally titled "FBI "Covers Up" File Exposing Theft Of Nuclear Secrets", (that link is to the google search page which still shows the original title of the piece), yet when you click the story it has since been changed to "FBI denies file exposing nuclear secrets theft."

This latest Times article refers to a case file number, 203A-WF-210023, which was referenced in an anonymous letter sent to the Liberty Coalition, which led to a request under the Freedom of Information Act, for information about that file.

The anonymous letter said, in part, "You may wish to request pertinent audio tapes and documents under FOIA from the Department of Justice, FBI-HQ and the FBI Washington field office.”

It claims the government official warned a Turkish member of the network that they should not deal with a company called Brewster Jennings because it was a CIA front company investigating the nuclear black market. The officials warning came two years before Brewster Jennings was publicly outed when one of its staff, Valerie Plame, was revealed to be a CIA agent in a case that became a cause célèbre in the US.

The letter also makes reference to wiretaps of Turkish “targets” talking to ISI intelligence agents at the Pakistani embassy in Washington and recordings of “operatives” at the ATC.

Edmonds has been under a 5 year state secret gag order preventing her from talking further about the investigation she witnessed.

Last week the FBI denied the existence of that file.

Times Online claims they have a document signed by an FBI official showing the existence of the file, but they did not provide that document.

Edmonds believes that the file is being deliberately covered up because of its "explosive" nature and states "I can tell you that that file and the operations it refers to did exist from 1996 to February 2002. The file refers to the counterintelligence programme that the Department of Justice has declared to be a state secret to protect sensitive diplomatic relations."

She also states that she has reported this to the U.S. Congress, the Inspector General of the Justice Department and the 9/11 commission.

On May 13, 2004, the Judiciary Committee and all their staffers were sent an email, (PDF file of that email), putting them on notice that briefings from January 17, 2002 and July 9, 2002, concerning Sibel Edmonds, were subject to retroactive classification.

The decision to treat the information as classified from this point forward relates to civil litigation in which the FBI is seeking to quash certain information. The FBI believes that certain public comments have put the information in a context that gives rise to a need to protect the information.

Any staffer that attended those briefings, or who learns about those briefings, should be aware that the FBI now considers the information classified and should therefore avoid further dissemination.

If you attended this briefing and took notes, please contact Pat Makanui, Office of Senate Security, at 4-5632.

If you have any questions please call Nick Rossi at (202)-324-7484.

As reported by and other media outlets, this gave rise to concern from politicians with Senator Charles E. Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, saying "I'm alarmed that the FBI is reaching back in time and classifying information it provided two years ago. Frankly, it looks like an attempt to impede legitimate oversight of a serious problem at the FBI."

In January of 2005, the U.S Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General, Office of Oversight and Review, released an declassified version f a 100 page report titled "A Review of the FBI's Actions in Connection With Allegations Raised By Contract Linguist Sibel Edmonds"

On March 22, 2002, the FBI stopped using Edmonds' translation services, and on March 26 the FBI terminated her contract. Edmonds complained that the termination was in retaliation for her complaints, and the OIG agreed to investigate this matter.

They list the scope of their investigation which included interviews with more than 50 individuals, FBI employees, contractors and Department of Justice officials as well as three separate interviews with Sibel Edmonds in April, June and November of 2002 as well as offering to meet with her again, through her attorney, if she believed she had anymore relevant information to add, that offer was declined.

The OIG also obtained and reviewed thousands of pages of FBI documents relating to Edmonds' allegations, including e-mails, notes, and other records.

They also brought in other expert assistance with translations and other matters from another federal government agency outside the DOJ.

We closely examined nearly a dozen separate allegations by Edmonds against the co-worker which, when viewed together, amounted to accusations of possible espionage. We sought to determine, with respect to each individual allegation, whether the facts supported or refuted the allegation. However, the ultimate determination as to whether the co-worker engaged in espionage, as Edmonds' allegations implied, was beyond the scope of the OIG's investigation. We communicated to the FBI during our review that the OIG was not making such a determination, and that the potential espionage issue should be addressed by the FBI, not the OIG. Instead, our investigation focused on the FBI's response to the complaints Edmonds raised about her co-worker and other language translation issues.

According to some media accounts, Edmonds made additional allegations relating to the September 11 terrorist attacks and the allegedly inappropriate reaction by other FBI linguists to those attacks. However, Edmonds never raised those allegations to the OIG, and we did not investigate them in our review. Rather, we understand that staff from the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (9/11 Commission) interviewed Edmonds regarding these claims. Our review focused on the allegations made by Edmonds to the OIG, particularly Edmonds' allegations regarding the FBI's handling of the concerns about the co-worker, her allegations about inappropriate practices in the language program, and her allegation that the FBI retaliated against her for raising those allegations.

In Part III of the report, the OIG provided background information on Edmonds and relevant FBI components and procedures.

In Part IV, the OIG assessed the factual basis of Edmonds' allegations against the co-worker.

The OIG found that the FBI did not do their due diligence in investigating Edmonds allegations stating "found that many of Edmonds' core allegations relating to the coworker were supported by either documentary evidence or witnesses other than Edmonds. Moreover, we concluded that, had the FBI performed a more careful investigation of Edmonds' allegations, it would have discovered evidence of significant omissions and inaccuracies by the co-worker related to these allegations. These omissions and inaccuracies, in turn, should have led to further investigation by the FBI. In part, we attributed the FBI's failure to investigate further to its unwarranted reliance on the assumption that proper procedures had been followed by the FBI during the co-worker's hiring and background investigation, which did not include a risk assessment, contrary to FBI practice."

They found that in some instances, Edmonds was justified in raising a number of concerns to her supervisors.

In other instances they could not find evidence to support her allegation or the inferences that she drew from certain facts. However, Edmonds' assertions regarding the co-worker, when viewed as a whole, raised substantial questions and were supported by various pieces of evidence.

In Part V the OIG provided a factual chronology of events and an analysis of the FBI's handling of the allegations as they arose.

Several FBI witnesses told the OIG that allegations suggesting potential espionage by one FBI employee against another are exceedingly rare. This allegation was extremely serious - even if the evidence was not clear. Once Edmonds submitted her detailed written complaints about her colleague, a sufficient basis existed to justify a thorough inquiry by the FBI. However, as will be described below, the FBI's inquiry was seriously deficient.

Edmonds received permission from her Language Supervisor to write up additional complaints from her home computer, and one of those complaints was the assertion that the co-worker was being protected inappropriately by a supervisor.

The OIG's examination of FBI records did not substantiate the allegation that the coworker was being inappropriately protected.

The OIG also concluded that the Security Officer's investigation of Edmonds' claims against the co-worker was significantly flawed.

They go on to detail the follow up investigations by the Language Supervisor, FBI Management as well as a follow up with the Special agent that Edmonds assisted, and a polygraph examination, where they were not focusing on her allegations but asking if classified information or confidential material had been passed to unauthorized individuals.

On March 8, Edmonds took the polygraph examination. The polygraph questions asked of her related to whether she had disclosed classified information to unauthorized persons and whether she was maintaining classified information outside FBI office space. She denied those charges, and the polygrapher concluded that she was not deceptive in her answers.

The co-worker was polygraphed on March 21. The co-worker was asked about her activities. The co-worker denied having engaged in inappropriate activities. The polygrapher concluded that the co-worker was not deceptive in these answers.

In Part VI, the OIG examined Edmonds' additional allegations, including concerns about travel voucher fraud and time and attendance abuse.

In Part VII, the PIG addressed the allegation that the FBI decided to stop using Edmonds as a linguist in retaliation for her allegations.

In Part VIII, the PIG made recommendations to the FBI to help it improve its foreign language translation program.

Part IX is the OIG's conclusions:

Our investigation concluded that the FBI did not, and still has not, adequately investigated these allegations. Our review also found that many - although not all - of Edmonds' allegations about the co-worker had some basis in fact. This evidence does not prove, and we are not suggesting, that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that espionage or any improper disclosures of FBI information occurred. However, we believe the FBI should have taken Edmonds' allegations more seriously and investigated them more thoroughly. As discussed in this report, the FBI's investigation of the information regarding the co-worker was significantly flawed. Had the FBI investigated the claims thoroughly, it would have found that many of Edmonds' allegations regarding the co-worker were supported by documentary evidence or other witnesses. Instead, the FBI seems to have discounted Edmonds' allegations, believing she was a disruptive influence and not credible, and eventually terminated her services. Even now, the FBI has not carefully investigated the allegations about the co-worker to determine if the co-worker compromised any FBI information. In light of the need for FBI vigilance about security issues, as demonstrated by the Hanssen case, we believe the FBI should have investigated these serious allegations more thoroughly.

Edmonds also alleged that the FBI retaliated against her by terminating her services as a CL. We concluded that Edmonds' allegations were at least a contributing factor in why the FBI terminated her services. We recognize that the FBI Whistle blower regulations do not apply to Edmonds because she was a contractor rather than an FBI employee. We also recognize that her varied and insistent allegations of misconduct may have been frustrating, and that not all of her allegations were true. However, many of her allegations had a basis in fact, and the way the FBI responded to her allegations contributed to her persistent claims. Moreover, we believe the FBI should not discourage employees or contractors from raising good-faith allegations of misconduct or mismanagement and the FBI's termination of Edmonds' services may discourage others from raising such concerns.

With regard to Edmonds' other allegations of misconduct, most were not supported by the evidence we reviewed. However, she did raise a valid concern about unnecessary travel for certain linguists.

This OIG report and the above mentioned email to the Judiciary Committee and their staffers brings a couple of points and questions to mind.

Translators are there to translate tapes and conversations between parties, usually in a foreign language, but those translators are not investigators and are not given a full accounting of top secret operations and investigations, therefore what they are hearing and translating has no context to be communicated by the translator to other parties.

The FBI had an obligation to properly investigate Edmond's allegations and the OIG investigation found the FBI's investigation seriously flawed and not conducted they way it should have been to prove or disprove Edmond's claims.

Secrecy in some cases protects our National Security, which is why gag orders are placed on certain individuals and why whistleblowers, while in some cases bring some useful information about wrongdoings to light, can also misinterpret that same information that they have no contextual basis to which to conclude anything other than the literal translation which is their job.

A proper investigation into those allegations could have determined whether Edmonds had misunderstood the information or had lacked the context to make such determinations, but barring the FBI's doing a thorough job, which was their responsibility to do, one in which the OIG is correct in determining they didn't do, lend her allegations credibility.

Found online is the Classified Information procedures Act from 1980 to 1994 and the Executive Order 12958 from April 17, 1995, signed by Bill Clinton, both detailing exactly what classified information is and why information is deemed classified.

Which brings up the questions referred to above.

What type of information should be made classified and what is just secrecy to be secretive?

The US defines espionage towards itself as "The act of obtaining, delivering, transmitting, communicating, or receiving information about the national defense with an intent, or reason to believe, that the information may be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation. Espionage is a violation of 18 United States Code 792-798 and Article 106, Uniform Code of Military Justice."

When there is an allegation of espionage, is there not a responsibility and obligation to do a full, complete investigation to prove or disprove such a serious accusation?

Protecting states secrets is vital to our National Security and exposing some of those secrets could do irreparable damage to our country, but failing to fully investigate an allegation of espionage against the U.S could potentially do even more damage.

The FBI, even according to the DOJ, did not do the job they were tasked to the best of their ability.