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Published: Saturday, 8/7/2004

The FBI does a lousy job

Newly hired as a translator of Turkish and Farsi (the language spoken in Iran), Sibel Edmonds was sitting at her desk in FBI headquarters in Washington on Sep. 20, 2001, retranslating a communications intercept headquarters had received some time before from an agent in Phoenix.

The intercept contained references to skyscrapers and to U.S. immigration procedures, clues to the intentions of the 9/11 hijackers, clues overlooked by the person who first translated the document.

Ms. Edmonds raced to her supervisor and asked to speak on a secure line to the agent who had obtained the intercept, to tell him of the significance of what she had found. The supervisor refused, Ms. Edmonds told Anne Kornblut of The Boston Globe. Telling the agent what actually was in the intercept would embarrass the person who had mistranslated it, her supervisor told Ms. Edmonds.

There was more to worry about than just sloppy translations. Ms. Edmonds became alarmed when she learned that a fellow Turkish translator was a member of a Middle Eastern group being investigated by the FBI. She brought this to the attention of her supervisor.

But nothing was done, as she learned later when she and an agent working with her discovered that the translator in question had withheld "17 pieces of extremely specific and important information."

Frustrated by the FBI's refusal to look into her concerns, she took them to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has oversight over the FBI. Finally the FBI took action. Ms. Edmonds was fired.

The FBI is the agency chiefly responsible for finding spies and terrorists in our midst. The FBI does a lousy job.

Most of us recall how agents in Minneapolis wanted to examine the computer of Zacarias Moussaoui, the "20th hijacker," but their superiors in Washington wouldn't let them.

Some of us recall how those same superiors ignored reports from agents in Phoenix and Oklahoma City that Islamists were attending flight schools there.

The FBI ought to have suspected al-Qaeda was planning to use airplanes as weapons, argues Peter Lance in his chilling book, 1,000 Years for Revenge. Ramzi Youssef, architect of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, and Abdul Hakim Murad were captured after a plot to hijack airliners in the Pacific in 1995 went awry. They had discussed flying a hijacked airliner into CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., Murad told interrogators.

Mr. Lance argues that the FBI could have captured Youssef and his co-conspirators before the first World Trade Center bombing if they had paid attention to Special Agent Nancy Floyd and the agent she'd recruited who had penetrated the cell. But Ms. Floyd's superiors forced her to cut her informant loose - and then persecuted her.

We'd like to believe things have gotten better since the wake-up call on Sept. 11, 2001, and perhaps they have. But the cases of Ms. Edmonds and Mike German suggest otherwise.

Mike German was an FBI agent who in the 1990s successfully infiltrated white supremacist skinheads plotting to blow up a black church in Los Angeles and a militia group in Washington state that talked about attacking government buildings.

In 2002, Mr. German got word that a militia group in Tampa, Fla., might be plotting with an Islamic terror group. He proposed to his bosses that he go undercover again.

But Mr. German says FBI officials sat on his request, botched the investigation, falsified documents to discredit its own sources, then froze him out and made him a pariah.

The 16-year veteran quit the FBI in June.

"What's so frustrating for me is that what I hear the FBI saying every day on TV when I get home, about how it's remaking itself to fight terrorism, is not the reality of what I saw every day in the field," he told Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times.

Mr. German, Ms. Floyd, Ms. Edmonds, and others in the FBI have suffered for having been right about Islamic terror. But nothing bad has happened to the supervisors whose negligence caused intelligence failures.

The 9/11 Commission has proposed a massive restructuring of the intelligence community but said next to nothing about the FBI. Washington is all about fixing what isn't broken, not what is.



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