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Ashcroft sued over sealing of FBI records

WASHINGTON -- A watchdog group sued Attorney General John Ashcroft yesterday for classifying previously public documents pertaining to a whistleblower's claims of security lapses in the FBI's translator program.

Citing national security, Ashcroft recently classified documents related to the case of Sibel Edmonds, a former linguist at the FBI. The lawsuit charged that reclassifying materials that had previously been in the public domain is illegal and unconstitutional.

The suit was filed in federal court by the Washington-based Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit group that has been following the case.

In 2002, Edmonds told her bosses of her concerns about shoddy translations and suggested one interpreter with a relative who works at a foreign embassy may have compromised national security. Edmonds was fired soon after. The bureau cited performance issues as reasons for the dismissal.

Ashcroft told Senate Judiciary Committee members at a hearing earlier this month that he took responsibility for the decision to classify the Edmonds information.

"The national interests of the United States would be seriously impaired if information provided in one briefing to the Congress were to be made generally available," he said.

The lawsuit said that Edmonds's case was discussed by the FBI during unclassified Senate Judiciary Committee briefings in 2002. It said letters urging the FBI to investigate her claims were posted on the websites of Senators Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, and Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa. Those postings have since been removed.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the project, called Ashcroft's actions "an extraordinary and dangerous abuse of power."

Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller declined to comment on the lawsuit.

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