A Review of the FBI's Response to John Roberts' Statements on 60 Minutes
Office of the Inspector General
SHOW: 60 Minutes
DATE: October 27, 2002
LOST IN TRANSLATION
ED BRADLEY, host:
Lost in Translation is the story of hundreds, if not thousands, of foreign language documents that the FBI neglected to translate before and after September 11th because of problems in its language department, documents that detailed what the FBI heard on wiretaps and learned during interrogations of suspected terrorists. Sibel Edmonds, a translator who worked at the FBI's language division, says the documents weren't translated because the division is riddled with incompetence and corruption. Edmonds was fired after reporting her concerns to FBI officials. She recently told her story behind closed doors to investigators in Congress and to the Justice Department. Tonight she tells her story to us.
(Footage of Edmonds and Bradley; FBI agents carrying boxes out of house; Edmonds and Bradley)
BRADLEY: (Voiceover) Because she is fluent in Turkish and other Middle Eastern languages, Edmonds, a 32-year-old Turkish-American, was hired by the FBI soon after September 11th and given top-secret security clearance to translate some of the reams of documents seized by FBI agents who, for the past year, have been rounding up suspected terrorists across the United States and abroad.
Ms. SIBEL EDMONDS: The first two months after the September 11 event, we--the agents out there in--in--in New York, LA, other field offices, they were working around the clock. And I would receive calls from these people saying, 'Would you please prioritize this and--and translate it?'
(Footage of Edmonds sitting at desk; Edmonds and Bradley)
BRADLEY: (Voiceover) But Edmonds says that to her amazement, from the day she started the job, she was told repeatedly by one of her supervisors that there was no urgency; that she should take longer to translate documents so that the department would appear overworked and understaffed. That way, it would receive a larger budget for the next year.
Ms. EDMONDS: We were told by our supervisors that this was the great opportunity for asking for increased budget and asking for more translators. And in order to do that, don't do the work and let the documents pile up so we can show it and say that we need more translators and expand the department.
BRADLEY: So you--you have FBI agents who are in the field relying on your translation work in order to move their cases forward, and your supervisor is saying, 'Slow down. Let the cases pile up'?
Ms. EDMONDS: Correct.
BRADLEY: I mean, how is it possible that the focus wasn't on terrorism, particularly after 9/11 ?
Ms. EDMONDS: It was not. At least in that department, it was not.
(Footage of Bradley and Edmonds)
BRADLEY: (Voiceover) Edmonds says that the supervisor, in an effort to slow her down, went so far as to erase completed translations from her FBI computer after she'd left work for the day.
Ms. EDMONDS: The next day, I would come to work, turn on my computer and the work would be gone. The translation would be gone. Then I had to start all over again and retranslate the same document. And I went to my supervisor and he said, 'Consider it a lesson and don't talk about it to anybody else and don't mention it.'
BRADLEY: What's the lesson?
Ms. EDMONDS: The lesson was don't work, don't do the translations. Go out and spend two hours lunch breaks, you know. Go and--don't go and get coffee downstairs. Go eight blocks away. Just chat with your friends. But don't do the work because--and this is our chance to increase the number of people here in this department.
(Footage of Edmonds sitting at desk; Grassley speaking at podium; Grassley and Bradley)
BRADLEY: (Voiceover) Sibel Edmonds put her concerns about the FBI's language department in writing to her immediate superiors and to a top official at the FBI. Edmonds says for months, she got no response. She then turned for help to the Justice Department's inspector general, which is investigating her claims, and to Senator Charles Grassley because his committee, the Judiciary Committee, has direct oversight of the FBI.
Did she seem credible to you? Did her story seem credible?
Senator CHARLES GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): Absolutely, she's credible. And the reason I feel she's very credible is because people within the FBI have corroborated a lot of her story.
(Footage of woman working at computer; Kevin Taskasen speaking with woman; prisoners at Guantanamo Bay; Taskasen; Edmonds and Bradley)
BRADLEY: (Voiceover) The FBI has conceded that some people in the language department are unable to adequately speak English or the language they're supposed to be translating. Kevin Taskasen was assigned to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to translate interrogations of Turkish-speaking al-Qaida members who had been captured after September 11th. The FBI admits that he was not fully qualified to do the job.
Ms. EDMONDS: He neither passed the English nor the Turkish side of this language proficiency test.
BRADLEY: So that means if, for example, you had a--a terrorist detained at--at Guantanamo who had information about an attack being planned in the future against the United States, that person would not have been in a position to translate that?
Ms. EDMONDS: Correct. He wouldn't.
BRADLEY: I mean, that's hard to imagine.
Ms. EDMONDS: But that's the case.
(Footage of exterior of J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building; recovery effort at World Trade Centerpombing in 1993; exterior of FBI Building; recovery effort at World Trade Center bombing in 2001; GAO documents on foreign languages; Grassley and Bradley)
BRADLEY: (Voiceover) Critical shortages of experienced Middle Eastern language translators have plagued the FBI and the rest of the US intelligence community for years. Months before the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, one of the plotters of the attack was heard on tape having a discussion in Arabic that no one at the time knew was about how to make explosives, and he had a manual that no one at the time knew was about how to blow up buildings. None of it was translated until well after the bombing, and while the FBI has hired more translators since then, officials concede that problems in the language division have hampered the country's efforts to battle terrorism, and according to congressional investigators, may have played a role in the inability to prevent the September 11th attacks. Earlier this year, the General Accounting Office reported that the FBI had expressed concern over the thousands of hours of audiotapes and pages of written material that have not been reviewed or translated because of a lack of qualified linguists.
Sen. GRASSLEY: If--If they got word today that within--in a little while, the Hoover Dam was going to be blown up, and it takes a week or two to get it translated, as was one of the problems in this department, you know, you couldn't intervene to prevent that from happening.
BRADLEY: So you think that this place does need an overhaul essentially?
Sen. GRASSLEY: It needs to be turned upside down. - (Footage of exterior of FBI Building; FBI agent; foreign flags; Bradley)
BRADLEY: (Voiceover) In its rush to hire more foreign language translators after September 11th, the FBI admits it has had difficulty performing background checks to detect translators who may have loyalties to other governments, which could pose a threat to US national security.
Take the case of Jan Dickerson, a Turkish translator who worked with Sibel Edmonds. The FBI has admitted that when Dickerson was hired last November, the bureau didn't know that she had worked for a Turkish organization being investigated by the FBI's own counterintelligence unit, and they didn't know...
(Footage of Turkish Embassy; Edmonds and Bradley)
BRADLEY: (Voiceover) ...she'd had a relationship with a Turkish intelligence officer stationed in Washington who was the target of that investigation. According to Sibel Edmonds, Jan Dickerson tried to recruit her into that organization, and insisted that Dickerson be the only one to translate the FBI's wiretaps of that Turkish official.
What was her reaction when you didn't go along with--with her plan?
Ms. EDMONDS: She got very angry, and later she threatened me and my family's life.
BRADLEY: Threatened you?
Ms. EDMONDS: Correct.
BRADLEY: Did--did you take her threat seriously?
Ms. EDMONDS: Oh, yes. She said, 'Why would you want to place your life and your family's life in danger by translating these tapes?'
(Footage of Edmonds working at desk; State Department building; aerial view of the Pentagon; Edmonds and Bradley)
BRADLEY: (Voiceover) Edmonds says that when she reviewed Dickerson's translations of those tapes, she found that Dickerson had left out information crucial to the FBI's investigation; information that Edmonds says would have revealed that the Turkish intelligence officer had spies working for him inside the US State Department and at the Pentagon.
Ms. EDMONDS: We came across at least 17, 18 translations, communications that were extremely important for--for the ongoing investigations of these indivi--individuals.
BRADLEY: And she had not translated these--these--this information?
Ms. EDMONDS: No, she had marked it as 'not important to be translated.'
BRADLEY: Specifically, what kind of information did she leave out of her translation?
Ms. EDMONDS: Activities to obtain the United States military and intelligence secrets.
(Edmonds working; Edmonds and Bradley)
BRADLEY: (Voiceover) Edmonds says she complained repeatedly to her bosses about what she'd found on the wiretaps and about Jan Dickerson's conduct, but that nobody at the FBI wanted to hear about it. She says not even the assistant special agent in charge.
Ms. EDMONDS: He said, 'Do you realize what you are saying here in your allegations? Are you telling me that our security people are not doing their jobs? Is that what you're telling me? If you insist on this investigation, I'll make sure in no time it will turn around and become an investigation about you.' These were his exact words.
(Footage of FBI letter to Edmonds; Bradley)
BRADLEY: (Voiceover) Sibel Edmonds was fired this past March. The FBI offered no explanation, saying in the letter only that her contract was terminated completely for the government's convenience.
But three months later, the FBI conceded that on at least two occasions, Jan Dickerson had, in fact, left out significant information from her translations. They say it was due to a lack of experience and was not malicious.
(Footage of exterior of home; Chicago Tribune article; Grassley and Bradley)
BRADLEY: (Voiceover) Dickerson recently quit the FBI and now lives in Belgium. She declined to be interviewed, but two months ago, she told the Chicago Tribune that the allegations against her are preposterous and ludicrous. Senator Charles Grassley says he's disturbed by what the Dickerson incident says about internal security at the FBI.
Sen. GRASSLEY: You shouldn't have somebody in your organization that's compromising our national security by not doing the job right, whether it's a lack of skills or whether it's intentional.
BRADLEY: Based on your experience, does the Sibel Edmonds case fall into any pattern of behavior, pattern of conduct on--on the part of the FBI?
Sen. GRASSLEY: The usual pattern. Let me tell you, first of all, the embarrassing information comes out, the FBI reaction is to sweep it under the rug, and then eventually they shoot the messenger.
(Footage of John Roberts leaving building; Roberts and Bradley)
BRADLEY: (Voiceover) Special agent John Roberts, a chief of the FBI's Internal Affairs Department, agrees. And while he is not permitted to discuss the Sibel Edmonds case, for the last 10 years, he has been investigating misconduct by FBI employees and says he is outraged by how little is ever done about it.
Mr. JOHN ROBERTS: I don't know of another person in the FBI who has done the internal investigations that I have and has seen what I have and that knows what has occurred and what has been glossed over and what has, frankly, just disappeared, just vaporized, and no one disciplined for it.
(Footage of Robert Mueller speaking at podium; Roberts; Edmonds working; Roberts and Bradley)
BRADLEY: (Voiceover) Despite a pledge from FBI director Robert Mueller to overhaul the culture of the FBI in light of 9/11, and encourage bureau employees to come forward to report wrongdoing, Roberts says that in the rare instances when employees are disciplined, it's usually low-level employees like Sibel Edmonds who get punished and not their bosses.
Mr. ROBERTS: I think the double standard of discipline will continue no matter who comes in, no matter who tries to change. You--you have a certain--certain group that--that will continue to protect itself. That's just how it is.
BRADLEY: No matter what happens?
Mr. ROBERTS: I would say no matter what happens.
BRADLEY: Have you found cases since 9/11 where people were involved in misconduct and were not, let alone reprimanded, but were even promoted?
Mr. ROBERTS: Oh, yes. Absolutely.
BRADLEY: That's astonishing.
Mr. ROBERTS: Why?
BRADLEY: Because you--you would think that after 9/11, that's a big slap on the face. 'Hello! This is a wake-up call here.'
Mr. ROBERTS: Depends on who you are. If you're in the senior executive level, it may not hurt you. You will be promoted.
BRADLEY: In fact, the supervisor who Sibel Edmonds says told her to slow down her translations was recently promoted. Edmonds has filed a whistle-blower suit to get her job back, but last week, US Attorney General Ashcroft asked the court to dismiss it on grounds it would compromise national security. And also on the grounds of national security, the FBI declined to discuss the specifics of her charges, but it says it takes all such charges seriously and investigates them.