Lawsuits challenge Justice effort to classify previously public information

By Chris Strohm

A Justice Department effort to classify two-year-old information related to an FBI whistleblower's allegations that has been in the public domain has touched off a controversy.

The case revolves around allegations made by Sibel Edmonds, a former FBI contract linguist, who says the agency mishandled information that might have tipped the government to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks before they occurred.

In response to her allegations, the Senate Judiciary Committee requested two briefings from the Justice Department in the summer of 2002. The briefings gave rise to letters of inquiry to FBI and Justice Department officials from committee members Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Last month, the Justice Department asserted that material in the briefings, and by implication the letters, was classified. The Judiciary Committee has since removed the letters from its Web site, but they remain available elsewhere on the Web.

Edmonds and the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog group, filed separate lawsuits against the Justice Department last week, arguing that any attempt to classify information from the briefings is illegal and violates the First Amendment.

"This is without question the most egregious abuse of the classification authority I've ever seen or could imagine," said David Vladeck, a professor at Georgetown Law School, who is representing the Project on Government Oversight in its lawsuit.

"You can't classify the phone book," Vladeck said. "You can't classify information that is readily available."

In her lawsuit, Edmonds argues that the congressional briefings were "unequivocally unclassified."

"Not only did at least one uncleared Senate staff member participate in the meeting, which was held in an unsecured room, but the information was widely disseminated afterwards both verbally and in writing," the suit states. "[The FBI] has improperly classified information to illegally cover up violations of law, inefficiency, administrative error and embarrassing information."

The Justice Department refused to comment on any matters related to Edmonds' case.

The director of the National Archives' Information Security Oversight Office said he is looking into the matter.

William Leonard, the office's director, said he wants to determine whether the Justice Department is trying to reclassify material that was formally publicized, or whether classified information was inappropriately released during the briefings. If the department is trying to reclassify material, then several specific procedures must be followed that have not yet been taken, he said.

The letters from Grassley and Leahy are available on the Web site of CQ Homeland Security, a Congressional Quarterly publication.

In a June 19, 2002, letter, Leahy and Grassley asked the Justice Department's inspector general to investigate allegations made by Edmonds. In an Aug. 13, 2002, letter, Leahy and Grassley told Attorney General John Ashcroft that they had several concerns about the FBI's translation services.

"Ms. Edmonds has made a number of serious allegations, some of which the FBI verified were not unfounded during an unclassified briefing for Judiciary Committee staff on June 17," the Aug. 13 letter states.

Edmonds, a Turkish-American, worked in the FBI's Washington field office from Sept. 20, 2001 to March 2002.

She was given a Top Secret security clearance and hired to retranslate material collected prior to Sept. 11 to determine if anything was missed in the translations relating to the plot.

In an interview Friday, Edmonds alleged that information was circulating inside the FBI as early as April 2001 that al Qaeda was planning an attack in major U.S. cities using airplanes; terrorists were already in place inside the United States; and the attack was only months away.

"As early as April 2001, [the FBI] received information from a reliable asset that they had been using for at least 10 years that al Qaeda was planning an attack in the United States targeting major cities," she said.

Edmonds said she also briefed members of the staff of Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Government Reform Committee, on her case this month.

On Oct. 18, 2002, Ashcroft asserted "state secrets privilege" over Edmonds, preventing her from discussing specifically what she did or what information she obtained. The government argued that Edmonds' information "would cause serious damage to the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States."

Edmonds has filed a lawsuit to lift the gag order.

The Justice Department's inspector general launched an investigation into Edmonds' case in the summer of 2002, which is still ongoing. Edmonds said Friday she plans to file a lawsuit within the next two weeks to compel the IG to finish its investigation.