Copyright 2004 The
New York Times Company
The New York Times
May 20, 2004 Thursday
Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section A; Column 1; National Desk; Pg. 18
LENGTH: 839 words
HEADLINE: Material Given to Congress In 2002 Is Now Classified
BYLINE: By ERIC LICHTBLAU
DATELINE: WASHINGTON, May 19
The Justice Department has taken the unusual step of retroactively classifying information it gave to Congress nearly two years ago regarding a former F.B.I. translator who charged that the bureau had missed critical terrorist warnings, officials said Wednesday.
Law enforcement officials say the secrecy surrounding the translator, Sibel Edmonds, is essential to protecting information that could reveal intelligence-gathering operations. But some members of Congress and Congressional aides said they were troubled by the move, which comes as critics have accused the Bush administration of excessive secrecy.
''What the F.B.I. is up to here is ludicrous,'' Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, said in an interview. ''To classify something that's already been out in the public domain, what do you accomplish? It does harm to transparency in government, and it looks like an attempt to cover up the F.B.I.'s problems in translating intelligence.''
F.B.I. officials gave Senate staff members two briefings in June and July of 2002 concerning Ms. Edmonds, who said the F.B.I.'s system for translating intelligence was so flawed that the bureau missed chances to spot terrorist warnings.
But the F.B.I. now maintains that some of the information discussed was so potentially damaging if released publicly that it is now considered classified, according to a memorandum distributed last week within the Senate Judiciary Committee. The material could also play a part in pending lawsuits, including Ms. Edmonds's wrongful termination suit and a lawsuit brought by hundreds of families of Sept. 11 victims who have sought to take testimony from her.
''Any staffer who attended those briefings, or who learns about those briefings, should be aware that the F.B.I. now considers the information classified and should therefore avoid further dissemination,'' the Judiciary Committee memorandum said.
An F.B.I. official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the decision to classify the material was made by the Justice Department, which oversees the bureau. The Justice Department declined to comment on Wednesday.
The F.B.I. told Congressional officials that it was classifying topics including what languages Ms. Edmonds translated, what types of cases she handled, and what employees she worked with, officials said. Even routine and widely disseminated information -- like where she worked -- is now classified.
Ms. Edmonds, who is Turkish-American, began working for the F.B.I. shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks as a translator in the F.B.I.'s Washington field office with top-secret security clearance, but she was let go in the spring of 2002. She first gained wide public attention in October of that year when she appeared on ''60 Minutes'' on CBS and charged that the F.B.I.'s translation services were plagued by incompetence and a lack of urgency and that the bureau had ignored her concerns. The Justice Department's inspector general is investigating her claims.
The F.B.I. has taken steps to improve its translation operations, including hiring more linguists. But Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, wrote in March to the Justice Department that he still had ''grave concerns'' about the F.B.I.'s ability to translate vital counterterrorism material.
Ms. Edmonds testified in a closed session this year before the Sept. 11 commission, and she has made increasingly vehement charges about the F.B.I.'s intelligence failures, saying the United States had advance warnings about the attacks. Families of the Sept. 11 victims -- who are suing numerous corporate and Saudi interests whom they accuse of having links to the attacks -- have sought to depose her as a witness, but the Justice Department has blocked the move by saying her testimony would violate ''the state secret privilege.'' Her lawyer could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
While some Congressional officials said they were confident the Justice Department had followed proper procedure in classifying the information, others said they could not remember any recent precedents and were bothered by the move.
''I have never heard of a retroactive classification two years back,'' said an aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because the subject is classified.
''It would be silly if it didn't have such serious implications,'' the aide said. ''People are puzzled and, frankly, worried, because the effect here is to quash Congressional oversight. We don't even know what we can't talk about.''
Senator Grassley said, ''This is about as close to a gag order as you can get.''
The F.B.I. denied the accusation.
''We're not imposing a gag order,'' the F.B.I. official said. Members of Congress have the information, but have to treat it as classified, the official said. ''The problem is that while these pieces of information may look innocuous on their own, you put them all together and it reveals a picture of sensitive intelligence collection, and that's a security problem.''
LOAD-DATE: May 20, 2004