Celebrating 9/11 at the FBI
Paul Sperry, FrontPageMagazine.com, February 11, 2004
When linguist Sibel Dinez Edmonds showed up for her first day of work at the FBI, a week after the 9-11 attacks, she expected to find a somber atmosphere. Instead, she was offered cookies filled with dates from party bowls set out in the room where other Middle Eastern linguists with top-secret security clearance translate terror-related communications.
She knew the dessert is customarily served in the Middle East at weddings, births and other celebrations, and asked what the happy occasion was. To her shock, she was told the Arab linguists were celebrating the terrorist attacks on America, as if they were some joyous event. Right in front of her supervisor, one translator cheered:
“It’s about time they got a taste of what they’ve been giving the Middle East.”
She found out later that it was her supervisor’s wife who helped organize the office party there at the bureau’s Washington field office, just four blocks from the J. Edgar Hoover Building.
“This guy’s wife brought the date-filled cookies for the celebration,” Edmonds, 33, recalled.
At the time, the supervisor, Mike Feghali, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Beirut, was in charge of the FBI’s Turkish and Farsi desks.
But he’s been promoted since then, and now also runs the all-important Arabic desk, which is key to intercepting the next al-Qaida plot.
It gets worse.
The language service squad is the front line in the FBI’s war on terrorism, collecting all foreign language tips, information and terrorist threats to homeland security. Agents act on what the squad translates and reports. The sooner they get the information, the sooner they can thwart terrorist attacks. Investigators had missed clues to both the 2001 and 1993 World Trade Center attacks because they were buried in a backlog of untranslated wiretaps and documents in Arabic.
Despite the backlog, Feghali told Edmonds and other translators to just let the work pile higher, according to Edmonds. Why? Money. She says Feghali, who has recruited family and friends to work with him at the high-paying language unit, argued that Congress would approve an even bigger budget for it if they could continue to show big backlogs.
“We were told to take long breaks, to slow down translations, and to simply say ‘no’ to those field agents calling us to beg for speedy translations so that they could go on with their investigations and interrogations of those they had detained,” said Edmonds, who was fired without specified cause by the FBI after she reported breaches in security, mistranslations and potential espionage by Middle Eastern colleagues.
She claims Feghali actually tampered with her work to slow her down.
“My supervisor went as far as getting into my work computer and deleting almost completed work so that I had to go back and start all over again,” she said.
Edmonds, a Turkish-American who is not a practicing Muslim, made the allegations last month in a 9-page letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
She also claims that Feghali threatened to sue the bureau for racial discrimination, but dropped the suit once the bureau promoted him, says Edmonds and other sources. The FBI, which like the army suffers from a severe shortage of Arabic translators, instated a bureau-wide Muslim-sensitivity training program after 9-11.
Reached by phone at his Maryland home, Feghali was brusque and refused to talk about the allegations.
“I’m not at liberty to discuss this thing, OK?” he said before abruptly hanging up.
The spokesperson for the FBI’s Washington field office, Debbie Weierman, did not return repeated phone calls.
Feghali, who holds several foreign language degrees, has been an FBI language specialist for several years. He was a key translator in the government’s case against al-Qaida operatives charged in the U.S. embassy bombing in Kenya, and even testified in court.
Sources say he is planning to move back to Lebanon.
A key player in the 9-11 plot and the likely pilot of United Airlines Flight 93, the suicide plane that crashed apparently en route to the U.S. Capitol, was Ziad Samir Jarrah, a Lebanese.
Edmonds has also complained about Feghali and other Middle Eastern translators to the Justice Department inspector general.
And on Wednesday, she is scheduled to give a detailed briefing to members of the 9-11 commission in a secure room here.
She claims terrorist “investigations are being compromised,” and has demanded an independent probe of the FBI’s language department.
“If there were, and are, persons within the language department that either intentionally prevented translation because of their agendas, or persons who were, and are, not qualified to properly translate, it is likely that terrorist communications prior to 9-11 were missed; and it is likely that current and future terrorist communications will likewise be missed,” Edmonds wrote Justice’s Inspector General Glenn A. Fine in a Jan. 5 letter. “I have alleged, and the FBI has confirmed (to Senate investigators), that there are in fact such persons in the language department.”
Fine still has not released the findings of his internal probe, even though Edmonds first filed her complaint with his office almost two years ago. Speaking for Fine, Justice official Carol Ochoa said the investigation is “still ongoing.”
“We are working hard to complete it expeditiously,” she said in a Jan. 6 letter to Edmonds.