WASHINGTON -- The FBI never adequately investigated complaints by a fired contract linguist who alleged shoddy work and possible espionage inside the bureau's translator program, although evidence and witnesses supported her, the Justice Department's senior oversight official said yesterday.
The bureau's response to complaints by former translator Sibel Edmonds was "significantly flawed," Inspector General Glenn Fine said in a report that summarized a lengthy classified investigation into how the FBI handled the case. Fine said Edmonds's contentions "raised substantial questions and were supported by various pieces of evidence."
Edmonds says she was fired in March 2002 after she protested to FBI managers about shoddy wiretap translations and told them an interpreter with a relative at a foreign embassy might have compromised national security by blocking translations in some cases and notifying targets of FBI surveillance.
In response to the new report, the FBI said yesterday it still was investigating Edmonds's contentions. It also said FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has reminded senior bureau officials to protect employees against retaliation for raising concerns. The government has said Edmonds did not qualify for formal whistle-blower job protections because she worked with the FBI under a personal contract.
"The report substantiated the most serious of Sibel's allegations and demonstrates that the FBI owes Sibel an apology and compensation for its unlawful firing of her rather than hiding behind its false cloak of national security," said Mark Zaid, her lawyer.
Fine did not specify whether Edmonds's charges of espionage were true. He said that was beyond the scope of his probe. But he criticized the FBI's review of the spying allegations, which he said were "supported by either documentary evidence or witnesses other than Edmonds."
The report did not name Edmonds's co-worker, although Edmonds has identified the employee in comments to journalists. The report said there could be innocent explanations for the co-worker's behavior, but "other explanations were not innocuous."
The report noted that Edmonds's co-worker passed a lie detector test, as Edmonds has done, but it described the polygraph examinations as "not ideal" and noted that follow-up tests were not conducted.
Senators Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, and Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, said the FBI's review of Edmonds's allegations was unacceptable, especially after the espionage scandal involving Robert P. Hanssen, the FBI agent caught spying for Russia for more than a decade.
"The bureau has reflexively ignored and punished its whistle-blowers, to the detriment of the bureau's effectiveness and sometimes to the detriment of the public's safety," said Leahy, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The report also disclosed that Edmonds was fired for using her home computer to write a memorandum about her suspicions that contained classified information. The FBI deemed that a security violation. It noted that Edmonds, who held "top secret" clearance, had obtained permission from an FBI supervisor to work on the memorandum at home.
Agents later seized Edmonds's home computer, which she shared with her husband, and returned it two days later after removing traces of the classified information.
Edmonds is described in the new report as an outspoken, distracting worker who irritated FBI supervisors and was "not an easy employee to manage." Nevertheless, it concluded the FBI fired her largely because of her allegations, not her work habits.
Edmonds filed a federal lawsuit seeking to retain her job, but last summer, in an unusual move, a judge threw out her case after Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and said her contentions might expose government secrets that could damage national security. Edmonds is appealing the decision.
Mueller told senators in a July letter that the FBI conducted a "relevant investigation" of Edmonds's contentions but promised to review the case and conduct a further investigation if necessary.
Edmonds was born in Iran and reared in Turkey. She speaks English, Turkish, Azerbaijani, and Farsi.