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An FBI in denial

AFTER THE FBI quashed efforts by Agent Coleen Rowley to get a surveillance and search warrant on a suspected Al Qaeda terrorist before Sept. 11, 2001, the agency should have started giving alert employees like Rowley the respect they are due. But the FBI has not learned its lesson.

A report from the Justice Department's inspector general states that in another case the FBI fired a translator at least in part because she raised troubling questions about FBI competence. If the FBI is to be effective in fighting terrorism, it should be encouraging whistle-blowers like Sibel Edmonds, not punishing them.

Edmonds, a translator, speaks Turkish, Farsi (which is widely spoken in Iran and Afghanistan), and Azerbaijani. The FBI dropped her as a contract employee in 2002 after she made three complaints to superiors: that much of the translating done before and after Sept. 11 was slipshod; that another FBI translator had blocked translation of material involving acquaintances of that employee; and that the FBI had obstructed the translation of terrorism-related intelligence because of diplomatic considerations.

On July 21, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller sent the Senate Judiciary Committee a letter stating that the Justice Department's inspector general, Glenn Fine, had concluded in a classified report that Edmonds's whistle-blowing was "at least a contributing factor" in the FBI's decision to fire her. In the past, federal officials had said Edmonds's allegations had nothing to do with her dismissal.

Mueller also informed the committee that Fine had found that the FBI failed to adequately investigate Edmonds's allegation about her fellow linguist. Mueller said he would renew that investigation in consultation with Fine and work to determine whether any FBI employees should be disciplined for the way Edmonds was treated.

Firing or demoting whoever fired Edmonds might be the only way to change the politicized and defensive culture of the FBI. Rowley complained about that culture after her frustrating experiences trying to investigate Zacharias Moussaoui, the Al Qaeda suspect who was detained in August 2001.

In his letter to the senators, Mueller said one of his first memos as director promised protection for whistle-blowers and said he would not "tolerate reprisals or intimidation by any bureau employee against those who make protected disclosures." To make clear that this protection extends to contract employees like Edmonds, he said, he is sending another memo.

That's a start. But if Mueller does not do a better job -- not just of protecting but encouraging employees like Rowley and Edmonds -- the FBI will continue to hide its failings to the nation's peril. 

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