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Fmr. FBI Translator: White House Had Intel On Possible Airplane Attack Pre-9/11

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We speak with former FBI translator, Sibel Edmonds, who was hired shortly after Sept. 11 to translate intelligence gathered over the previous year related to the 9/11 attacks. She says the FBI had information that an attack using airplanes was being planned before Sept. 11 and calls Condoleezza Rice’s claim the White House had no specific information on a domestic threat or one involving planes “an outrageous lie.” [includes rush transcript]

President Bush yesterday finally agreed to allow National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify publicly and under oath before the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.

  • President Bush, White House Press Briefing, March 30, 2004.

Bush did not take questions and left the room after his statement.

For weeks, the White House has insisted for weeks that Rice not testifying was a matter of constitutional principle and would set a dangerous precedent.

On 60 Minutes this weekend Rice said, “It is a longstanding principle that sitting national security advisers do not testify before the Congress.”

It is unclear what “longstanding principle” Rice was referring to since President Clinton allowed his national security adviser, Sandy Berger, to testify in public before the House Governmental Affairs Committee only 8 years ago and Zbigniew Brzezinski was allowed under President Carter.

In return for Rice testifying, the commission agreed to strict conditions that ruled out any further public testimony from White House officials, including Rice herself. So after Rice’s appearance before the panel, public testimony from various aides who might be in a position to confirm or deny her claims is not an option.

The commission also promised that Rice’s testimony won’t set a precedent.

Bush also agreed to meet privately with all 10 commissioners for an undetermined time limit, backing off his previous demand to meet only with the Chairman and Vice Chairman for just one hour.

But again, the apparent retreat by the president came with conditions. In return, the commission agreed that Bush will not be under oath and can have Vice President Dick Cheney appear with him by his side.

Rice has outright denied having specific information of an imminent domestic threat involving hijacking airplanes, but she might have a particularly hard time convincing the 9/11 Commission of this fact.

A former FBI translator with top-secret clearance has called Rice’s claims “an outrageous lie.” She says she testified before the 9/11 Commission that the FBI had information that an attack using airplanes was being planned before September 11.

  • Sibel Edmonds, former FBI translator who was hired shortly after Sept. 11 to translate intelligence gathered over the previous year related to the 9/11 attacks. She speaks fluent Farsi, Arabic and Turkish.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Sibel Edmonds. Welcome to Democracy Now!

SIBEL EDMONDS: Thank you. Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, what about this claim that both President Bush has made and Condoleezza Rice has made saying that they had no information about an imminent domestic threat involving airplanes?

SIBEL EDMONDS: Well, Amy, for the past two years I have testified several times before the Department of Justice Inspector General, for the Senate Judiciary Committee, and a few months ago I testified behind closed doors for the 9-11 Commission, and as I stated before, to just come out and say — and state that we had no specific information whatsoever, that would be an outrageous lie. President Bush, I guess, he made a smart move, because he also added that they did not have any specific information stating that the attack was going to occur on September 11. But Ms. Rice’s statement that we had no specific information is inaccurate.

AMY GOODMAN: Looking specifically at the Op-Ed piece that Condoleezza Rice wrote in the “Washington Post” on March 22nd, she said, “Despite what some have suggested we received no intelligence that terrorists were preparing to attack the homeland using airplanes as missiles.” Though, some analysts speculated that the terrorists might hijack airlines to try to free U.S.-held terrorists. The F.A.A. even issued a warning to airlines and aviation security personnel that, quote, “The potential for a terrorist operation such as an airline hijacking to free terrorists incarcerated in the United States remains a concern.”

SIBEL EDMONDS: Well, I would say not only that we had specific information, we had several specific information as early as April, 2001. And many of this information has been public already. I mean, you look at what Agent Rowley provided, you look at the Phoenix Memo, the investigations that I worked on after 9-11, retranslating certain documents related to certain investigations, that is the reason I’m saying this is absolutely inaccurate. We had not one, but we had many specific informations, and this information was not maybe investigated under counter-terrorism because it’s very difficult to separate these issues when you have criminal investigation, and money laundering investigation, drug related investigations that actually have major information regarding 9-11 incidents. To say that they would be mostly under counter-terrorism would be a wrong assumption, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Sibel Edmonds, can you explain exactly why you have come to these conclusions? What exactly was your job?

SIBEL EDMONDS: My job was translating documents and various documents, audio and also interviews that had to do with various investigations. Again, not only counter-terrorism, but counter-intelligence and criminal investigations. During this short tenure that I had over there, I became aware of several investigations that were ongoing investigation dating back to a year or — some of them actually years before 9-11 that contained significant amount of information about various activities. I would like to emphasize again, we are talking about money laundering activities directed toward these terrorist activities. We are looking at counter-intelligence activities, so, as I said it, is not categorized under counter-terrorism. This information was pouring in dating back as early as 2000.

AMY GOODMAN: Sibel Edmonds, can you explain what exactly you did? I mean, you took a job on was it September 20, 2001?


AMY GOODMAN: And where did you work? SYBIL EDMONDS: I worked for Washington Field Office, F.B.I.’s Washington Field Office Translation Department, and they had the largest translation department in the country. So, because we were the largest, we received information again in various formats from all over the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, when you say you received information, what is it that you were handed — transcripts of wiretapped phone conversations, what?

SIBEL EDMONDS: Well, I cannot specifically answer this question. As you’re aware, I’m under a gag order, however, as I said, in various forms — and as I said, again, it — I did interviews, I did documents, I did audios, and this is as specific as I’m allowed to get in terms of the format with this information.

AMY GOODMAN: You translated them?


AMY GOODMAN: Into English.


AMY GOODMAN: Had some of them been translated before?

SIBEL EDMONDS: Yes. Many of them, actually.


SIBEL EDMONDS: Oh, by various translators previously, and agents from different field offices felt like that these information was either inaccurate or it was not precise, so they felt that they needed to send these documents or other formats back and have them get to be retranslated because after 9-11, they were suspicious that the information that they received was not really accurate, and there was more. And in fact, in some cases, there were more.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

SIBEL EDMONDS: Well, let’s say you had certain investigations, and you sent certain either documents, audio or whatever to be translated, and certain translator translated it in let’s say summary format, and basically that this information is not that pertinent. After 9-11, the agent is saying, you know what, I want this thing to be retranslated again, because considering 9-11 and considering this target under this investigation, we believe there was more in this, let’s say, document or audio. And after translating this — let’s say, particular document, verbatim, and sending back, then that is when you would see the information and say — shake your head and say how could we have missed this information before.

AMY GOODMAN: Sibil Edmonds, what do you think would have happened if anything that you translated after September 11 had been translated fully before? And accurately?

SIBEL EDMONDS: I cannot confidently answer this question because in fact there were information that were translated very precisely and accurately before. And somehow having that information did not achieve anything, either. So, unfortunately, I cannot say if these documents were translated more precisely previously, something would have been done. My question is how about the ones that we had before? How about the information we had before that were pretty specific and they were pretty accurate, and they came from real reliable sources assets. What happened to that information? That is my question, and I’m hoping that through this investigation by the 9-11 Commission, we will get to hear these questions being asked specifically and directly.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, but when we come back, Sibel Edmonds, I want to ask you why there is a gag order on you.


AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Sibel Edmonds, a former F.B.I. Wiretap Translator. Senator Charles Grassley, the Republican from Iowa, has told “” she recently testified before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, and called her very credible. We’ll be back in a minute.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking with a former F.B.I. Wiretap Translator with top secret security clearance. She was hired just after September 11 to go back and retranslate, or sometimes translate for the first time, documents and conversations from before September 11. Republican Senator Charles Grassley called her very credible, said that she recently testified before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, saying that the F.B.I. had detailed information prior to September 11, 2001, that a terrorist attack involving airplanes was being plotted. Now, Sibel Edmonds, to call Condoleezza Rice’s claim that the White House had no specific information on domestic threat or one involving planes an outrageous lie is very strong. Can you repeat again or fill out the information that you have to substantiate that? She’s going to be going before the 9-11 Commission herself.

SIBEL EDMONDS: Right. Well, Amy, I really wish I could comment, I could have given you some specific information. I’m hoping that these authorities, being Director Mueller, during his testimony, or the report that was expected to be out by Inspector General’s Office to come out, actually, instead of being sealed, and shoved under this blanket of secrecy so that you would see these specific informations, because I don’t know if you are aware of it or not, but Attorney General Ashcroft on October 18, 2002, personally asserted State Secret Privilege in my case. I would read two sentences here: “To prevent disclosure of certain classified and sensitive national security information, Attorney General Ashcroft today asserted the State Secret Privilege in Sibel Edmonds’ case. This assertion was made at the request of the F.B.I. Director Robert Mueller,” in papers filed today, and they are citing the reason that because this case would create substantial risks of disclosing classified and sensitive national security information that could cause serious damage to our country’s security. They are citing that this privilege is very rare and is asserted to prevent certain information getting — becoming public or hurting diplomatic relations. I would underline this phrase, diplomatic relations several times.

AMY GOODMAN: And what has been the response of the federal authorities to you speaking out right now?

SIBEL EDMONDS: They have — during their meetings with Senator Grassley and Senator Leahy’s office, these authorities have confirmed all of my reports and allegations and have denied none. However, as I said, Inspector General’s Office’s report was supposed to be out in October, 2002. Here we are sitting in March 2004, and my sources are telling me they are going to seal this report, and it will be never made public. Now, to protect certain diplomatic relations? — that is the question. What diplomatic relations? To this date, I have been waiting to see this information to be available, and become available and be out there, but it’s not getting there. And there’s so much that the public just simply doesn’t know. About what went wrong, what we had, and my last hope right now is this Commission. 9-11 Commission is my last hope because I have pursued all possible authority channels that I could have pursued. I have gone to the Senate. I have provided testimony to the Inspector General’s Office and the F.B.I. They have confirmed these allegations, however, this information is being prevented from becoming public. It needs to be public because first we have to acknowledge the facts before we go about fixing these problems. If they don’t want to admit to these facts and they want to — they don’t want to acknowledge it, then we have no chance of really addressing the serious issue of national security and terrorism that they are citing.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Sibel Edmonds, a former F.B.I. Wiretap Translator, hired just after September 11, ultimately was fired. I want to ask about Senator Grassley on “60 Minutes” saying you’re credible. Quote, “She’s credible, and the reason I feel she’s very credible is because people within the F.B.I. have corroborated a lot of her story.” I want to ask you about why you were fired, and the reports you have made of serious misconduct, security lapses and gross incompetence in the F.B.I. Translations Unit, including supervisors who told translators to work slowly during the crucial post-9-11 investigations to get more funds as well as other issues of harassment of you, as you started to make these charges.

SIBEL EDMONDS: Yes. Senator Grassley, I have a lot of respect for Senator Grassley. After they investigated this case, he said basically, publicly, on CBS “60 Minutes” that these departments need to be turned upside-down. I took that very literally, and I have been expecting for past two years for these departments and the issues within these departments to be addressed. You see, after September 11, these people — people from the F.B.I., came forward and they blamed everything on shortage of budgets and shortage of personnel. And they said, we failed, and these were the major causes. These were the reasons. That is not accurate. We were told during the time that these people were going on TV and they were begging for people to apply for translation positions because we had this shortage, what was going on behind the scenes was exactly opposite. We were being asked not to do these translations, and let the documents pile up, because within a month or so, they were scheduled to go in front of the Senate and Congress and ask for increased budgets. In doing so, they needed to give numbers of pages, numbers of documents and audios that they were not translated due to the shortage, and needed to be translated, and that they were urgent, and in order to do so, we had to increase that number, the number of pages and the number of audio.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, Sibel Edmonds, I remember doing a piece on the translators who were gay and lesbian, who were fired at a time when there was a serious lack of translators.

SIBEL EDMONDS: Again, this contradicts what they have been stating. I performed translations for three languages, and they had so many active cases under those languages. They are not even admitting that they had fired me. This is how they are putting it: “She was terminated purely for the convenience of the government.” Now, you can translate that in any way you want, but it is the vague statement — that she was not fired, she was terminated purely for the government’s convenience. Now, what is that? What is that?

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you have sued?

SIBEL EDMONDS: Yes. And first of all, I applied for — information that I could, under Freedom of Information Act, receive, and I wanted to get some of these documents. I know what those documents are, and — but I wanted to get them out and make it public. They did not comply, as they are required under the Freedom of Information Act, so we had to pursue the court option. And again, for this court case, we never even had a chance to go in front of this particular judge because they went in camera, and they told the judge, due to national security and the State Secret Privilege, these documents, all 1,500 of them, are top secret, classified documents, therefore, none of them can be released to the public, and again, without any hearings, we never went in front of any judge, the judge ruled in favor of the F.B.I. And she said, “Well, who am I to argue with the government? If they are saying it’s going to compromise our national security I have to take their word for that,” and therefore, they ruled against us, and now we are appealing that case.

AMY GOODMAN: Sibel Edmonds, you testified before the 9-11 Commission. You also held a news conference right outside the hearings, right before Richard Clarke testified. What has been the media response?

SIBEL EDMONDS: First of all this issue has been out there for almost two years. Every few months, there has been an article here or an article there, and first of all, if — major news sources don’t perceive it as a news item because it’s not news, it’s an issue. It cannot be news because specifics are withheld and by this real, real strong State Secret Privilege. So how many specifics and evidence can be given to the media, and how much of this information can be provided? It is very limited. News sources such as yourself are the ones who actually have been paying attention to these issues and have been pursuing it and calling the Senate and calling the Inspector General’s Office and following up on that, but I have not seen major activities within the larger mass media sources. I don’t know why. I don’t know why, really, to be honest with you, I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you expect of this 9-11 Commission hearing?

SIBEL EDMONDS: I am still holding onto my optimism. I’m expecting on this April 13 and April 14 during the hearings with Director Mueller, I’m expecting them to ask the real questions. Now, I am expecting that their report will be different than the report that was issued by this Joint Intelligence Inquiry that they had which was basically nothing. And so far, I have been very disappointed, because the real issues, the specifics get to the address behind closed doors under this blanket of security and secrecy. Most likely from their reports, the real issues are going to be redacted because they’re going to be citing classifications, and then what good is that report going to do, or what use is this hearing going to have? That’s the question. I’m hoping that from these attentions that we have been receiving from the press in terms of the issues that have been raised by, again, Agent Rowley, Clarke, Mr. Clarke’s testimony, people would raise their expectations and expect to hear the real questions being asked from Director Mueller during this hearing. This is what I expect, and this is what I’m hoping. Another issue is to actually see the Senate exercising their oversight authority that has been given to them by the public. Because to this date, what I have been hearing repeatedly is that, in quotes, “Our hands are tied. You see the climate. Our hands are tied.” Well, in a way, that is not acceptable. Because they have been given the responsibility and authority to execute this oversight, and so far to this date, it hasn’t been exercised. I’m hoping that at least through these issues becoming more public and the 9-11 Commission will be followed by some real Senate activities in terms of addressing these issues. Because American public, you know, they have the right to know. They need to know these facts.

AMY GOODMAN: Sibel Edmonds, I want to thank you very much for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Sibel Edmonds, who was an F.B.I. Wiretap Translator, and we will continue to follow up on your story. I want to thank you for being here.

SIBEL EDMONDS: Thank you, Amy.

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