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Whistleblowers From Vietnam to 9/11: A Conversation with Daniel Ellsberg and Sibel Edmonds

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We speak with two whistleblowers from different eras about their experiences in speaking out: Sibel Edmonds, a former FBI translator hired to translate pre-9/11 intelligence, has said the U.S. had considerable evidence that al Qaida was planning to strike the U.S. with airplanes. The Bush administration is now trying to block her from testifying at a major 9/11 lawsuit. And Daniel Ellsberg, perhaps the most famous whistleblower in U.S. history who leaked the Pentagon Papers setting in motion actions that would eventually topple the Nixon presidency and end the Vietnam war. [includes rush transcript]

The Bush administration is trying to block FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds from testifying in a lawsuit filed by relatives and survivors of Sept. 11.

U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton said Monday he would hear classified evidence next month from the government, which is expected to cite laws regarding state secrets in order to gag the Turkish-American translator. The administration claims her evidence would “cause serious damage to the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States”.

Edmonds was hired after Sept. 11 by the FBI to translate pre-9/11 intelligence gathered by the agency. She has publicly said on Democracy Now and other media outlets that the U.S. had considerable evidence that Al Qaida was planning to strike the US with airplanes.

She was subsequently subpoenaed by the law firm Motley-Rice, which represents hundreds of families who are taking civil action against a number of banks and two members of the Bush-connected Saudi royal family for allegedly aiding al-Qaida.

The Bush administration had requested the hearing be closed to the public and press. On Monday, journalists and activists appeared at the court to object. Judge Walton yielded and the hearing was subsequently opened to scrutiny. However, Edmonds’ testimony has been postponed to June, and the question of whether her deposition will be allowed remains unresolved until further review.

  • Sibel Edmonds, former FBI translator who was hired shortly after Sept. 11 to translate intelligence gathered over the previous related to the 9/11 attacks. She speaks fluent Farsi and Turkish.
  • Daniel Ellsberg, in October of 1969 he began smuggling out of his office and xeroxing the 7,000 page top-secret study of U.S. decision making in Vietnam, known as the Pentagon Papers. He did so with the intent of revealing these secrets to Congress and the American public and in so doing, he set in motion actions that would eventually topple the Nixon presidency and end the Vietnam war. He is the author of Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. He was once described by Henry Kissinger as “the world’s most dangerous man.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: Sibel Edmonds was hired after September 11 by the FBI to translate pre-9-11 intelligence gathered by the agency. She has publicly said on Democracy Now! and other media outlets that the US had considerable evidence Al Qaeda was planning to strike the United States using airplanes as weapons. She was subsequently subpoenaed by the law firm Motley-Rice which represents hundreds of families who are taking civil action against a number of banks and two members of the Bush-connected Saudi Royal Family for allegedly aiding Al Qaeda. The Bush administration has requested the hearing be closed to the public and the press. On Monday, journalists and activists appeared at the court to object. Judge Walton yielded and the hearing was subsequently opened to scrutiny. However, Edmonds’ testimony has been postponed until June, and the question of whether her deposition will be allowed remains unresolved until further review. How many lawyers walked into the court, Sibel Edmonds, on Monday, to take you on — to decide whether or not, or to argue against you being able to speak publicly?

SIBEL EDMONDS: Well, the government sent about eighty-nine attorneys there. It was a scene. It was a scene.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what exactly are they saying? They’re saying they want to impose a gag order on you now, but you already have a gag order on you?

SIBEL EDMONDS: Correct. The attorneys for Motley-Rice were arguing that they were only going to ask questions on information that has already been public. You know, on your show and in the newspapers, and also information given by the FBI to the Senate Judiciary Committees during unclassified meetings with them. However, now the FBI is saying that even that information is top secret and national security and it cannot be used even though the information is already public.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait a second, are they saying that they’re asking for a further gag order that would prevent from you repeating what you have already said here, and in other places?

SIBEL EDMONDS: In a way that’s what they are saying. They are saying any information that has already been public is still considered classified, and it should not have been public and the FBI should not have had this unclassified meeting with the senate discussing it, so regardless, that information cannot be used.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s backtrack. What have you said? What do you think is the most important for people to understand in this country that you learned as an FBI translator with top security clearance when you went back to the pre-9-11 wiretap conversations that you translated?

SIBEL EDMONDS: I have provided testimony to the Senate and to the 9-11 Commission and, to a certain extent, unclassified version of it to the press talking about translations that were either intentionally blocked or mistranslated that were given to the agents in various fields that contained the specific information about activities and the support network of Al Qaeda. That information has been public and the fact that this information was blocked intentionally has been already confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

JUAN GONZALEZ: When you say, Sibel, that the evidence — that the tapes and the translations were either intentionally blocked or inadvertently mistranslated, are you saying these were substantive errors that gave a different meaning to those translations?

SIBEL EDMONDS: Yes. Yes, and not only that, the reasons they were blocked, as I said, partially was incompetence and partially was intentional. Also, we had instances where what Attorney General Ashcroft is citing in this state secret privilege, certain investigations were not pursued due to diplomatic relations.

AMY GOODMAN: Sibel, in your testimony before the 9-11 Commission, Senator Grassley, a conservative Republican senator, said he finds you highly credible. It seems that what you have now said publicly, that the US knew before 9-11 airplanes could be used as weapons, that information was coming out before 9-11, contradicted what Condoleezza Rice had been saying before she was put under oath. It seems your testimony has changed her testimony. You said that what she originally said, before she was under oath and just speaking on the networks, et cetera, was an outrageous lie. What was it that you were saying?

SIBEL EDMONDS: Well, about a week before this hearing when Condoleezza Rice testified in front of the commission, she made the statement that we did not have any specific information. And at that time I said that statement was an outrageous lie because “we” includes the FBI, her advisers, and therefore, the statement was an outrageous lie. She corrected herself during the commission hearing by saying that she made a mistake, and she should have said “I” personally did not have any specific information, rather than using “we,” which again left this whole question of “we” unanswered, and the commission did not pursue, well, who does that leave behind. If she was not given this information, who was the rest of this “we?”

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Sibel Edmonds. She was an FBI translator with top security clearance after September 11 looking at the pre-September 11 wiretap conversations. You can tell us who was talking? Who you were translating?

SIBEL EDMONDS: I cannot. I am not allowed to talk about any specifics of the targets of the investigations or even what type of documents we were translating.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why have you come forward?

SIBEL EDMONDS: I have come forward — I have been — I have been out there for the past two years and two months. I came forward about a month before I was terminated, going to the Senate and presenting them with this information because some of these inactions and some of these issues were continued after September 11, months after September 11. The Bureau allowed certain targets and certain people to leave the country months after 9-11.

AMY GOODMAN: Like who?

SIBEL EDMONDS: I cannot talk about who, but people who should have been criminally prosecuted here, the real people who should be retained — detained here and real people who really need to be investigated. And yet we hear about people being detained for INS violations, yet on the other hand, hypocritically, we allow other people to leave the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Where are these people from?

SIBEL EDMONDS: I cannot talk about that.

AMY GOODMAN: We will talk about what it means for you to take a stand like this and come forward. The 9-11 survivors and relatives of those lost wanting you to testify in their lawsuit, the US government not wanting you to. We’re going to talk also with Daniel Ellsberg on the line with us now, another famous whistleblower in US history. In October, 1969, he began smuggling out of his office and Xeroxing a 7,000-page top secret study of US decision-making in Vietnam known as the Pentagon Papers. He did so with the intent of revealing these secrets to Congress and the American public, and in so doing, he set in motion actions that would eventually topple the Nixon presidency, and end the Vietnam War. He is author of “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers,” once described by Henry Kissinger as the world’s most dangerous man. Can you respond to what Sibel Edmonds is now doing as another whistleblower, she with the FBI?

DAN ELLSBERG: I’m very happy to be on the program with Sibel Edmonds. She’s certainly one of my heroes at this point, and I’m glad to have heard of her effort. I admire what she is doing very much. I think she’s serving the country very well.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break for one minute, Dan Ellsberg, for stations to identify themselves, and then we’ll come back to a conversation with Dan Ellsberg and Sibel Edmonds, two whistleblowers here in the United States. Stay with us. [break]

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman in Washington, Juan Gonzalez is in New York. I head off to Boston today as we continue our “Exception to the Rulers” tour, tonight at Cambridge Forum at 7:00. We’ll be there with Noam Chomsky, seeing listeners and viewers throughout the Boston area on public access TV and community radio. Then we head off to Santa Fe and Albuquerque on Saturday, to Houston on Sunday with KPFT listeners and Denver and Boulder through the next week as well as Salt Lake City, Seattle, Portland and Eugene. Looking forward to seeing folks there. You can go to our website, to see the tour and find out where you can come out and celebrate your community media, your “Exception to the Rulers.” We are talking about state secrets. We are talking with whistleblowers: Sibel Edmonds in our Washington studio, an FBI translator with top security clearance, or I should say an ex-FBI translator, who looked back before September 11 to translate and look at the pre-9-11 wiretap conversations. We’re also joined by Daniel Ellsberg, one of the world’s most famous whistleblowers, who released the Pentagon Papers. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, I’d like to ask Sibel Edmonds first and then Daniel Ellsberg as well: we journalists depend, for the information we get and distribute to the public, on whistleblowers, but little attention is paid to what happens to the whistleblower after they go public. I’d like to ask Sibel Edmonds, what has been your experience once you went public, what impact on your personal life has occurred, and as well with Daniel Ellsberg, although his is perhaps a little better known.

SIBEL EDMONDS: Well, it has been an uphill battle for two years and two months. And as you can see, I’m counting the days. There are times that it becomes so difficult when you feel like, okay, that that’s basically it. There’s not much left that I can do. Because after you pursue all three branches of the government and all formal official channels available to you that you can pursue, and as you see, nothing happens, and everything gets to be covered up. You get to this point that you think, well, maybe there is nothing to be done. But then, I guess I stop and remind myself that — well, it is not supposed to be this way. We supposedly have this transparency, although it’s disappearing. Therefore, we are supposed to be having this accountability, which also is disappearing. We again are supposed to be having this system of checks and balances, which I’m still looking to find, and reminding that — that makes me — gives me the fuel to just go on and say, you know, if you do it and if you insist upon it, maybe — maybe you can make a difference, and maybe you can change. Because the direction we are in right now, it just looks — seems very alarming.

AMY GOODMAN: Dan Ellsberg.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yes. I want to repeat my admiration for what Sibel Edmonds has done for the last two years and what she’s doing right now. From my own experience and that of other people that I have dealt with, I want to assure her that more can be done. She hasn’t really tested the system all the way. She is sort of in the position that I was in '69 and ’70 where I had given 7,000 pages of top secret documents to the Senate and was waiting for them to hold hearings and as I was promised several times by Senator Fulbright, but he backed out in response to the bureaucratic punishment that he was expected to get from the administration. It wasn't enough to give it to Congress. In the end, it took giving it to the press directly and to the public through the press to get Congress to really take account of it, and to get that information out. Even that didn’t change the policy right away, but it set in motion some events which did have powerful effects in the end. So, what I’m saying here is that in a way, Sibel Edmonds is right now in the position that Katherine Gunn was before she decided to put out her document. She, too, was a translator — was — she’s fired. A translator for the national security bureaucracy. She worked for the equivalent of our national security agency in England. She did in fact put out a document that was highly classified, and was put on trial for it. The trial — she faced a couple of years in prison, and the trial actually was terminated when the government decided they didn’t want to argue the legality of the war, which she would have brought up in court. What I’m saying is so long as the public has not heard from the people that you have told so far, which I take it include the 9-11 Commission and perhaps Congress, and when they have kept silence and as I understand it, have judged it is in their opinion not harmed national security for it to be out there, they’re under a gag order for the administration, it remains for someone else, Sibel herself or someone else who knows this information on the staff or who has had access to it, to let the public know and to do that, at risk. To say that the risk is real, and it really is real, is not to say that it’s — it precludes the public getting that information. One can take the risk, and it takes courage, but as a matter of fact, it’s very obvious to me that I’m talking to someone here who does have a lot of courage. Sibel Edmonds, already like yourself, Amy, and Sibel is the source, you as the journalist, have shown great courage so far. That courage can go to the point of accepting the risk of trial.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Daniel Ellsberg, when you took that step, when you — when you made your information public to the “New York Times” and “Washington Post,” what was the impact on your life? For those people who either were not alive then or are not old enough to know.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: The information was received in the public as confirming things that allowed more or less left wing people had believed or had suspected for a long time. There had been indications of it but no confirmation. For everyone at the least, it was a confirmation. For many people it, was an amazing revelation that president after president had consciously lied about aspects of the war, as is certainly the case right now. The impact of that on public opinion about the war was very great, and yet the public had already turned against the war in large by that time. It just — they went more against the war in a way. Since the president wasn’t paying any attention to the public opinion, it didn’t actually affect his policy right away. The war went on. If you’d asked me a year after the Pentagon Papers came out, after bombing increased in many ways. I was asked that and I did say, I had to say, it had had no effect. It was worth putting out, it was educational, but it had no effect on the war. Actually, that was premature, because the president was so worried that I would put out — President Nixon, that I would put out more information, documents — documents that would bear on his policy, Nixon’s policy, that he took a number of act to shut me up that were then criminal. When those were found out, it did lead in part to his resignation and to the end of the war. Those acts are no longer criminal, most of them, under the Patriot Act. Our country has changed a good deal since then, but some of them are still criminal. Trying to beat me up on the steps of the Capitol is still a crime.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sibel Edmonds what do you think of what Daniel Ellsberg has just said, the idea that the wrath of the state comes down before, in the case of Katherine Gunn in Britain, exposing documents that the US and Britain were spying on members of the UN Security Council. They said they would put her away for a very long time. It was a very frightening time, but in the end, they dropped the case. In the case — the same with Daniel Ellsberg, do you feel the wrath of the state right now upon you, and in what ways, and do you think you might be ready to release documents — the kinds of things you might have told the 9-11 Commission about secretly, or privately?

SIBEL EDMONDS: First, I want to thank Dan, and also say that I am honored to be on the same show with him, because I have read all about him and I have tremendous amount of respect for Dan. And, I do agree. As I said, this has been going on two years and two months. I went through the appropriate steps, believing that they were appropriate to do and they were the means to achieve having the truth to get out, and I had gone to the inspector general’s office, and they were supposed to release this report in Fall, 2002, and now they are not releasing it, a year-and-a-half after that deadline has been over. I have gone to the Senate Judiciary Committee, I have gone to the OPR, and now finally, this is the 9-11, which is basically my last hope. It’s true this investigation — if they don’t make this public, then I have to step forward and just put an end to it. And I think the time is approaching.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you afraid?

SIBEL EDMONDS: There are times that I am afraid, but then again, I have to remind myself that this is my civic duty, and this is for the country, because what they are doing by pushing this stuff under this blanket of secrecy, what they are hiding is against the public’s welfare and interest. And reminding that to myself just helps me to a certain degree overcome that fear.

AMY GOODMAN: Sibel Edmonds, I want to thank you for being with us, FBI whistleblower, 9-11 whistleblower. Daniel Ellsberg revealed secrets that helped to end the Vietnam War, the 7,000-page top secret study of US decision making in Vietnam known as the Pentagon Papers.

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