War Stories

Federal Bureau of Incompetence

The shameful treatment of Sibel Edmonds proves the FBI’s urgent need for reform.

Two news reports today illustrate how far we are from getting real reforms in our methods of spotting and stopping terrorists.

The first story, on the AP wire, notes how gently the 9/11 commission treated the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Yes, the bureau screwed up as badly as any other agency prior to the attacks of Sept. 11, commission chairman Thomas Kean allowed. But the new FBI director, Robert Mueller, is moving in the right direction—”doing exactly the right thing,” as Kean put it—so the final report came down lightly on him.

The second story, in the New York Times, notes that the FBI and the Justice Department are keeping a tight seal of secrecy around the case of Sibel Edmonds, despite the inspector general’s finding that Edmonds was fired from the FBI at least in part because she’d accused the bureau of incompetence in the war on terror.

Edmonds was a contract linguist for the FBI—translating material from Turkish, Persian, and Azerbaijani—who was dismissed in 2002 after complaining that the bureau’s staff linguists had poorly translated important pieces of intelligence on terrorism, before and after Sept. 11. She also charged that one of these linguists had blocked the translation of material that implicated an acquaintance who had come under FBI suspicion.

For her repeated efforts, Edmonds was not only dismissed, she was also barred from testifying in a lawsuit brought by family members of 9/11 victims. The Justice Department further prohibited her from speaking out anywhere about her own case. All facts about her job at the FBI, even which languages she translated, were declared “state secrets.”

Until recently, to the extent that FBI spokesmen commented at all about why Edmonds was dismissed, they said only that she’d been “disruptive” (probably true, as far as it goes).

However, the story in today’s Times reveals that the Justice Department’s inspector general has concluded that Edmonds’ allegations “were at least a contributing factor in why the FBI terminated her services.”

How did Mueller, the much-lauded FBI director, respond to this finding? He wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, noting that he was “concerned” about the inspector general’s conclusion but also pleased that the IG “had not concluded that the FBI retaliated against Ms. Edmonds when it terminated her services on April 2, 2002.”


I suppose the phrase “at least a contributing factor in why the FBI terminated her services” is not precisely synonymous with a point-blank verdict that “the FBI retaliated against Ms. Edmonds when it terminated her services.” But it’s close enough. If the IG’s report were a piece of intelligence, I’d say it was “actionable.”

What action is Mueller taking? He told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he will, in the Times’ words, work “to determine whether any employees should be disciplined as a result”—which, by the way, is not the same as making any such determination or actually disciplining anyone as a result. But will he welcome Edmonds back to the bureau with open arms, place her in a supervisory post among its cadre of linguists, or encourage analysts in all its branches to emulate her example?

No, no, and no. The case, and Edmonds herself, are still under a court seal from the highest law-enforcement authority in our land.

What does all this have to do with the prospects for success in America’s war on terrorism? Plenty.

One big lesson of the 9/11 commission’s report is that our government failed to disrupt al-Qaida’s attack plan—failed to connect the many dots on the horizon—because of a lack of incentives. As I wrote here, in a summary of the report last week, “It turns out that many individuals, panels, and agencies had predicted an attack uncannily similar to what happened on Sept. 11, 2001. The problem was that nobody in a position of power felt compelled to do anything about it.”

In the next few days or weeks, President George W. Bush will probably sign an executive order implementing some of the bureaucratic changes that the report recommends. (Better three years late than never …) However, bureaucratic changes will have limited impact unless a new system of rewards and penalties—a new system of incentives—is also put in place.

For linguists and other analysts looking at what happened to Sibel Edmonds, the system of rewards and penalties is all too clear. The lesson they draw: Keep your head down; just do your job; if you see others doing their job badly, even if to the detriment of national security, don’t get involved.