What the f#$% is going on at the FBI?
Let’s say you’re running the organization responsible for trying to track potential terrorists in the United States. Immediately after 9/11, let’s say that one of your new employees tells you that some of the people doing necessary translating work (from Middle Eastern languages into English) are incompetent, helping to explain why relevant information never made ...
Let's say you're running the organization responsible for trying to track potential terrorists in the United States. Immediately after 9/11, let's say that one of your new employees tells you that some of the people doing necessary translating work (from Middle Eastern languages into English) are incompetent, helping to explain why relevant information never made it to the necessary links in the chain of command. What do you do?
Let’s say you’re running the organization responsible for trying to track potential terrorists in the United States. Immediately after 9/11, let’s say that one of your new employees tells you that some of the people doing necessary translating work (from Middle Eastern languages into English) are incompetent, helping to explain why relevant information never made it to the necessary links in the chain of command. What do you do?
A) Give this person a medal and start cleaning house; B) Fire the person, request a gag order to prevent her from speaking publicly about the case, and attempt to retroactively label anything said about the case as a state secret?
Alas, in the case of FBI whistle-blower Sibel Edmonds, it appears that both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice picked option B. For more background on the story, check out this Boston Globe story by Anne E. Kornblut, as well as Fred Kaplan’s justifiable rant in Slate. The FBI admitted last week that Edmonds’ whistle-blowing was “a contributing factor” in her firing. [Last week? That’s, like, a decade in blog-years–ed. Better late than never.] The coverage of this story reveals the extent to which the FBI has resisted any efforts at reform. In a 60 Minutes story on Edmonds from October 2002, consider this section:
In its rush to hire more foreign language translators after Sept. 11, 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 U.S. national security. Take the case of Jan Dickerson, a Turkish translator who worked with Edmonds. The FBI has admitted that when Dickerson was hired the bureau didn’t know that she had worked for a Turkish organization being investigated by the FBI’s own counter-intelligence unit. They also didn’t know she’d had a relationship with a Turkish intelligence officer stationed in Washington who was the target of that investigation. According to Edmonds, 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…. Does the Sibel Edmonds case fall into any pattern of behavior, pattern of conduct on, on the part of the FBI? “The usual pattern,” says Sen. Grassely. “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.” Special agent John Roberts, a chief of the FBI’s Internal Affairs Department, agrees. And while he is not permitted to discuss the Edmonds case, for the last 10 years he has been investigating misconduct by FBI employees. He says he is outraged by how little is ever done about it. “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,” says Roberts. 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 Edmonds who get punished and not their bosses. “I think the double standard of discipline will continue no matter who comes in, no matter who tries to change,” says Roberts. “You, you have a certain, certain group that, that will continue to protect itself. That’s just how it is.” Has he found cases since Sept. 11 where people were involved in misconduct and were not, let alone reprimanded, but were even promoted? Roberts says yes. (emphasis added)
And then there’s this New York Times account of another case study in FBI management:
As a veteran agent chasing home-grown terrorism suspects for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mike German always had a knack for worming his way into places few other agents could go. In the early 1990s, he infiltrated a group of white supremacist skinheads plotting to blow up a black church in Los Angeles. A few years later, he joined a militia in Washington State that talked of attacking government buildings. Known to his militia colleagues by the alias Rock, he tricked them into handcuffing themselves in a supposed training exercise so the authorities could arrest them. So in early 2002, when German got word that a group of Americans might be plotting support for an overseas Islamic terrorist group, he proposed to his bosses what he thought was an obvious plan: Go under cover again and infiltrate the group. But German says FBI officials sat on his request, botched the investigation, falsified documents to discredit its own sources, then froze him out and made him a “pariah.” He left the bureau in mid-June after 16 years and is now going public for the first time – the latest in a string of FBI whistle-blowers who claim they were retaliated against after voicing concerns about how management issues had impeded terrorism investigations since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Look, maybe the FBI has changed its ways and these examples are exceptions to the rule. And it should probably be acknowledged that there’s probably a strong correlation between being a whistle-blower and generally being a royal pain-in-the-ass. But they’re still pretty scary exceptions. And this open letter from Edmonds to the 9-11 Commission doesn’t make me feel any more sanguine. Particularly this part:
After the terrorist attacks of September 11 we, the translators at the FBI’s largest and most important translation unit, were told to slow down, even stop, translation of critical information related to terrorist activities so that the FBI could present the United States Congress with a record of ‘extensive backlog of untranslated documents’, and justify its request for budget and staff increases. While FBI agents from various field offices were desperately seeking leads and suspects, and completely depending on FBI HQ and its language units to provide them with needed translated information, hundreds of translators were being told by their administrative supervisors not to translate and to let the work pile up…. Today, almost three years after 9/11, and more than two years since this information has been confirmed and made available to our government, the administrators in charge of language departments of the FBI remain in their positions and in charge of the information front lines of the FBI’s Counter terrorism and Counterintelligence efforts. Your report has omitted any reference to this most serious issue, has foregone any accountability what so ever, and your recommendations have refrained from addressing this issue, which when left un-addressed will have even more serious consequences. This issue is systemic and departmental.
UPDATE: In the interest of fairness, here’s a link to yesterday’s testimony by the Executive Assistant Director for Counterterrorism/Counterintelligence to the Senate Government Affairs Committee on what the FBI thinks it has done right since 9/11. And here’s the FBI’s official response to the 9-11 Commission’s report.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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