The dangers of keeping secrets

By ROBYN E. BLUMNER, St. Petersburgh Times -- August 28, 2005

The very word "secrecy" is repugnant in a free and open society - John F. Kennedy

It is axiomatic that secrecy is the handmaiden of mischief, especially by government. When we are facing a foreign threat, the government tends to toss around terms like "national security" as a justification for increased secrecy. But often, such an invocation is not as much about making our nation safe as protecting the government from embarrassment or challenge by critics. That is what makes the case of Sibel Edmonds so dangerous.

You've probably heard of Edmonds. The naturalized Turkish-American was featured in a 2002 60 Minutes interview after she was fired for complaining about incompetence and misfeasance within the FBI's language division.

Edmonds is fluent in Turkish, Farsi and Azerbaijani and joined the translation team after 9/11 as an expression of patriotism toward her adopted country. Her job was to translate documents and audio tapes of intercepted phone conversations to assist counterterrorism and counterespionage operations. Edmonds was on the front lines of the war on terrorism.

But what she witnessed shocked and disillusioned her. Edmonds says her supervisors told her to let the documents accumulate so the department could appear overworked as a way to justify a bigger budget. She says translations were sloppy and some of the translators were not fluent enough to do the job. And even more seriously, Edmonds says that when she brought up suspicions that another Turkish translator was possibly protecting a corrupt enterprise by not translating a friend's wiretapped conversations fully or accurately, she was essentially ignored.

Edmonds was tenacious with her concerns and kept moving up the chain of supervisors within the FBI, until she finally contacted members of Congress. Her whistleblowing bought her an unceremonious boot out the door.

A Justice Department inspector general's report released in January 2005 goes far in validating Edmonds' suspicions. It states that "many of her allegations had bases in fact" and the FBI "did not take them seriously enough."

Talk about a disregard for national security. Even after the 9/11 attacks made it clear that the FBI's stultified atmosphere had to change, the agency would rather get rid of its internal critics than address its shortfalls. Potentially vital intelligence was not being swiftly or properly translated, so it fires the messenger. Even today, the agency is backlogged. According to a July inspector general's audit, the amount of untranslated counterterrorism audio has increased by thousands of hours since the end of 2003.

In response to her firing, Edmonds brought suit against the Justice Department and other government officials. Then, in an attempt to defeat her suit without having to answer it, the attorney general at the time, John Ashcroft, invoked the "state secrets privilege." The privilege is derived from common law and asserts that national security will be jeopardized by going forward.

The D.C. Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals allowed government lawyers to make their arguments in a private session, without Edmonds or her lawyers present. Two weeks later, the court dismissed her suit on national security grounds. Edmonds was given no chance to challenge the veracity of the government's claims.

And veracity is an issue. In the 1953 U.S. Supreme Court case of U.S. vs. Reynolds, the first case to flesh out a "state secrets" privilege, the government claimed "national security" to cover its own mistakes.

In Reynolds, the relatives of three civilians who died in a military plane crash in Georgia sued for damages. As part of discovery, they sought the flight accident report, but the government said the report shouldn't be disclosed because it included information on the aircraft's secret military equipment. The court upheld the government's privilege.

Fast forward 50 years. The newly declassified accident report does not actually refer to any secret electronic or military equipment. However, it does say the military's negligence had a role in the crash. The report states that "engine failure caused the crash" and that the accident might have been avoided "had the plane complied with the technical orders."

At least in Reynolds, the privilege kept only the accident report buried. It didn't defeat the whole case. Now the Bush administration is using the privilege to block Edmonds entirely. Think about how dangerous it is if whistleblowers who bring attention to internal mismanagement that hampers our intelligence efforts have their careers destroyed and are left without recourse. How many more insiders would be willing to come forward? How about none.

Edmonds, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, is asking the Supreme Court to take up her case and sharply narrow the state secrets privilege. In the long run, transparency is what keeps us safe and free. President Kennedy may have understood this, but George W. Bush is no John Kennedy.

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