In the days immediately following 9/11, Gail Sheehy went to Middletown,
New Jersey, a community that lost more people in the World
Trade Center than any other outside New York City. For the
better part of two years, Sheehy followed the women, men and
children who remained after the devastation and who continue
to put their lives back together. Sheehy's Middletown, America: One
Town's Passage from Trauma to Hope , was published by Random
House in September 2003 and received wide critical acclaim.
Yet for Sheehy, the Middletown community and the nation, the
story continues and threat remains.
In her book, and later in a series of articles for the New York
Observer, Sheehy continues to tell the story of four widowed moms
from New Jersey who turned their sorrow into action and became
formidable witnesses to the failures of the country’s leaders
to connect the dots before September 11. Sheehy follows the four
moms as they fight White House attempts to thwart the 9/11 Commission.
In addition to her articles for the New York Observer, Sheehy is
regularly featured on radio and television coverage about the failures
before and the aftermath of September 11.
Here is a sampling of her work:
9/11 Witness Says She Exposed Infiltration, Tells Kean Committee
She Lost Bureau Position; Sen. Grassley Sees 'Potential Espionage
by Gail Sheehy
Sibel Edmonds says she was shocked at the lack of security in the
F.B.I.'s counterintelligence squad when she went to work there shortly
after Sept. 11. But when she spoke up, she was canned. Gail
Sheehy tells her story.
Last Friday, the four women from New Jersey who have faced down
the F.B.I. on its failures in preventing the terrorist attacks of
Sept. 11, 2001, that claimed their husbands' lives were personally
invited to the bureau's Hoover Building offices in Washington, D.C.,
for a second visit. Their host was none other than F.B.I. director
Cordial and fully engaged, Mr. Mueller introduced the newly appointed
head of the Bureau's Penttbom investigation ( Pent for
Pentagon, Pen for Pennsylvania, tt for the Twin
Towers and bom for the four planes that the government
was forewarned could be used as weapons--even bombs--but ignored).
The new Penttbom team leader, Joan-Marie Turchiano, politely suggested
the widows present their questions.
"O.K." said Kristin Breitweiser, the group's hammerhead, "have
you solved the crime yet?"
The Penttbom leader said they had been investigating the 19 hijackers
and had run down every connection. Ms. Breitweiser recalls her next
words indelibly: "As far as our investigations are concerned,
we can say the hijackers had no contacts in the United States."
But the scathing 800-page report on intelligence failures produced
by a joint congressional investigation had already revealed that
the F.B.I. had open investigations on four of the 14 individuals
who allegedly had some kind of contact with the hijackers while they
were in the U.S.
The Four Moms from New Jersey, or "the girls" as they
refer to themselves, waste little time on niceties these days. They
were the firecrackers behind the creation of the 9/11 commission,
which after a year of meager progress, is finally ready to call key
administration officials to testify in public hearings on some of
the most important questions we have before us as a nation.
But White House delays and circumventions have hampered the effort,
and the four moms see the commission flagging in its use of subpoena
power to call in key Clinton and Bush administration officials for
their testimony. Personal connections between commission members--like
executive director Philip Zelikow and national security advisor Condoleezza
Rice--undermine the commission's purported independence. As the commission's
work draws close to its May dissolution, it appears the main question
they were tasked to answer will remain unanswered: Did our guardians
of national security have enough information to prevent 9/11? Why
did all of our officials who swore an oath of office to lead, protect,
and serve, fail to do so on the morning of 9/11?
Last Monday Ms. Breitweiser, along with three other members of the
Family Steering Committee, met with commissioner John Lehman about
the need for an extension of the Commission's May deadline-after
House Speaker Dennis Hastert had already declared such an extension
dead in the water. Exiting the meeting, the family members were hopeful
that he would join the majority of commissioners--all five Democrats,
chairman Thomas Kean and one other Republican, Slade Gorton--in supporting
a postponement. More recently, as Democratic presidential candidates
burnish their credentials in intelligence and national security issues
against Bush's 2004 campaign, the extension of that deadline is becoming
a heated issue.
While fighting a mostly losing battle for a transparent investigation,
the Moms are winning on another score: Whistleblowers from agencies
culpable in the failures of 9/11--long silent--are being attracted
to their mission.
Sibel Edmonds read an article published in these pages last August
about the 9/11 widows' bold confrontation with Director Mr. Mueller
in a private meeting last summer, and recognized kindred spirits.
"This was the first time I'd heard anybody ask such direct
questions to Mr. Mueller," said Ms. Edmonds, a Turkish-American
woman who answered the desperate call of the F.B.I. in September,
2001 for translators of Middle Eastern languages. Hired as contract
employee a week after 9/11, without a personal interview, Ms. Edmonds
was given top-secret security clearance to translate wiretaps ordered
by field offices in New York, Los Angeles, and other cities by agents
who were working around the clock to pick up the trail of Al Qaeda
terrorists and their supporters in the U.S. and abroad. Working in
the F.B.I.'s Washington field office, she listened to hundreds of
hours of intercepts and translated reams of e-mails and documents
that flooded into the bureau. In a series of intimate interviews,
she told her story to this writer.
When she arrived, her enormous respect for the F.B.I. was initially
"The field agents are wonderful, but they were terribly exasperated
with the D.C. office," she said.
While the news was full of reports of heaps of untranslated material
languishing inside the F.B.I.'s counterterrorism unit, Ms. Edmonds
has claimed that translators were told to let them pile up. She said
she remembers a supervisor's instructions "to just say no to
those field agents calling us to beg for speedy translations" so
that the department could use the pileup as evidence to demand more
money from the Senate. Another colleague she recalls saying bitterly, "This
is our time to show those assholes we are in charge."
F.B.I. translators are the front line for information gathered by
foreign-language wiretaps, tips, documents, e-mails, and other intercepted
threats to security. Based on what they translate and the dots they
connect, F.B.I. field agents act against targets of investigation-or
fail to act-in a timely manner. As an agent later told the Judiciary
Committee which oversees the F.B.I., "When you hear a suspect
say 'The flower will bloom next week,' you can't wait two weeks to
get it translated."
During her six months of work for the Bureau, Ms. Edmonds said she
grew increasingly horrified by the lack of internal security she
saw inside the very agency tasked with protecting our national security.
In papers filed with the F.B.I.'s internal investigative office,
the Department of Justice, the Senate Judiciary Committee, and most
recently with the 9/11 Commission, she has reported serious ongoing
failures in the language division of the F.B.I. Washington Field
Office. They include security lapses in hiring and monitoring of
translators, investigations that have been compromised by incorrect
or misleading translations sent to field agents; and thousands of
pages of translations falsely labeled "not pertinent" by
Middle Eastern linguists who were either not qualified in the target
language or English, or, worse, protecting targets of investigation.
Nothing happened. Undaunted, Ms. Edmonds took her concerns to upper
management. Soon afterward she was fired. The only cause given was "for
the convenience of the government." The F.B.I. has not refuted
any of Ms. Edmonds' allegations, yet they have accounted for none
On the morning Ms. Edmonds was terminated, she said, she was escorted
from the building by an agent she remembered saying: "We will
be watching you and listening to you. If you dare to consult an attorney
who is not approved by the F.B.I., or if you take this issue outside
the F.B.I. to the Senate, the next time I see you, it will be in
jail." Two other agents were present.
"I know about my constitutional rights, but do you know how
many translators would be intimidated?"
Shortly after her dismissal, F.B.I. agents turned up at the door
of the Ms. Edmonds' townhouse to seize her home computer. She was
then called in to be polygraphed--a test which, she found out later,
she passed. A few months after her dismissal, accompanied by her
lawyer on a sunny morning in May 2002, Ms. Edmonds took her story
to the Senate Judiciary Committee. As her high heels glanced off
the marble steps of Congress she sensed two men ascending right behind
her. Turning, she recognized the agent walk, the Ray-Bans, the outline
of a weapon, and the deadest giveaway of all--a cell phone pointed
straight at her, transmitting. "They weren't secretive about
it, they wanted me to know they're there," she said. After being
shadowed in plain sight many more times, she said with dark humor, "I
call them my escorts."
After her meeting, Senator Chuck Grassley, the Republican vice-chair
of the Judiciary Committee to whom Ms. Edmonds appealed, had his
investigators check her out. Then they, along with staffers for Senator
Patrick Leahy, called for a joint briefing in the summer of 2002.
The F.B.I. sent a unit chief from the language division and an internal
In a lengthy, unclassified session that one participant describes
as bizarre, the windows fogged up as the session finished; it was
that tense, "None of the F.B.I. officials' answers washed, and
they could tell we didn't believe them." He chuckles remembering
one of the Congressional investigators saying, "You basically
admitted almost all that Sibel alleged, yet you say there's no problem
here. What's wrong with this picture?"
The Bureau briefers shrugged, put on their coats, and left. There
was no way the F.B.I. was going to admit to another spy scandal only
months after being scorched by the Webster Report on one of the most
dangerous double agents in F.B.I. history, Robert Hanssen.
"I think the F.B.I. is ignoring a very major internal security
breach," said Grassley, "and a potential espionage breach."
Unlike those whistleblowers whose cause is redress of personal grievances,
Ms. Edmonds impressed Grassley as passionately patriotic.
"The basic problem is, heads don't roll," Sen. Grassley
said. "The culture of the F.B.I. is to worry about their own
public relations. If you're going to change that culture, somebody's
got to get fired." He is not optimistic, however, that Congress
will act aggressively. "Nobody wants to take on the F.B.I."
The translator had filed a complaint with the Inspector General
of the Department of Justice on March 7, 2002. She was told then
that an investigation would be undertaken and she could expect a
report by the fall of 2002. Twenty-one months later, she is still
waiting. She also filed a First Amendment case against the Department
of Justice and the F.B.I. And a Freedom of Information case against
the F.B.I. for release of documents pertaining to her work for the
Bureau, to confirm her allegations. The F.B.I. refused her FOIA request.
Their stated reason was the pending investigation by Justice, which,
her sources in the Senate tell her, will probably be held up until
after the November election.
When Ms. Edmonds wouldn't go away or keep still, F.B.I. Director
Mueller asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to assert the State
Secrets Privilege in the case of Ms. Edmonds versus Department of
Justice. Mr. Ashcroft obliged.
The State Secrets Privilege is the neutron bomb of legal tactics.
In the rare cases where the government invokes it to withhold evidence
or to block discovery in the name of national security, it can effectively
terminate the case. According to a 1982 Appeals Court ruling. "Once
the court is satisfied that the information poses a reasonable danger
to secrets of state, even the most compelling necessity cannot overcome
the claim of privilege ._"
In interviews conducted over recent weeks with a senior F.B.I. agent
who worked closely with Ms. Edmonds, former F.B.I. counterterrorism
agents, and with current and former members of Congress involved
in national security issues, a picture emerged of the dark undercurrents
that run beneath our best counterterrorism efforts, and the punishments
meted out to those who dare to expose it.
Does Ms. Edmonds pose a danger to secrets of state? Or do the secrets
buried in the nerve center of the F.B.I.'s counterterrorism squad
pose a danger to Americans living under the politics of dread?
Edmonds was seen as a jewel when the F.B.I. found her only a week
after September 11, 2001. With reports of stacks of untranslated "chatter" from
Middle Eastern suspects and their supporters, the embarrassed Bureau
couldn't wait to hire this Turkish-American graduate student who
speaks four languages, not only Turkish, Farsi (the Iranian language)
and Azerbaijani, but perfect American-English. The graduate student
was carrying five courses in preparation for her Master's degree
and was in mourning for her father's recent death. "But I felt
like I was being called to duty."
Inside the F.B.I.'s Washington field office roughly 200 translators
sit hip to hip in one large room that is a linguistic cacophony of
chatter from 185 different countries. The few Arabic translators
may be flanked by a Farsi speaker on one side, an Urdu speaker on
the other, and a translator of Chinese chatter behind them.
In a security briefing she was told that any documents marked "Top
Secret" had to be locked up when employees went to lunch. Laptops
had to be kept in a safe. Any contacts with foreign people, even
social, had to be reported. She also signed a document promising
to report any suspicious activities of other translators. She was
impressed with the stringency of F.B.I. rules.
The Translation Department is treated by the F.B.I. as highly sensitive.
Yet her badge allowed her and other translators to enter and exit
the building without passing through security, and within the sanctum
itself they could pass freely from floor to floor and to any agent's
office. Ms. Edmonds saw several different individuals leave the building
with documents or audio tapes in their gym bags. When she called
security to report it, nothing was done.
She was one of three Turkish translators working on real time wiretaps,
e-mails, and documents related to 9/11 investigations. One of her
colleagues was an unassuming immigrant whose first employment on
entering the U.S. was as a busboy. Ms. Edmonds was dismayed to learn
that he had been hired despite failing to pass the English equivalency
exam. When he was chosen to go to Guantánamo Bay, to translate
interrogations with the half-dozen Turkish detainees in America's
war on terror, she remembers with both compassion and disgust hearing
her colleague wail, "I can't do this!"
But it was her other colleague who gave her the greatest cause for
concern-and her reports to her superiors as well as an alphabet soup
of government commissions and agencies remain unanswered.
Melek Can Dickerson was a very friendly Turkish woman, married to
a major in the U.S. Air Force. She liked to be called informally "Jan."
The account that follows, which comes from extended interviews with
Ms. Edmonds, was related in testimony to the Senate Judiciary committee.
"I began to be suspicious as early as November, 2001" said
Ms. Edmonds. "In conversation Jan mentioned these suspects and
said 'I can't believe they're monitoring these people.'"
"How would you know?" Ms. Edmonds remembers saying. She
said Dickerson told her she had worked for them in a Turkish organization;
she talked about how she shopped for them at a Middle Eastern grocery
store in Alexandria.
Ms. Edmonds has told the Judiciary Committee that soon after, Ms.
Dickerson tried to establish social ties with her, suggesting they
meet in Alexandria and introduce their husbands to each other.
When Sibel invited the visitors in for tea, she said, Major Dickerson
began asking Matthew Edmonds if the couple had many friends from
Turkey here in the U.S. Mr. Edmonds said he didn't speak Turkish,
so they didn't associate with many Turkish people. The Air Force
officer then began talking up a Turkish organization in Washington
that he described, according to the Edmondses, as "a great place
to make connections and it could be very profitable."
Sibel was sickened. This organization was the very one she and Jan
Dickerson were monitoring in a 9/11 investigation. Since Sibel had
adhered to the rule that an F.B.I. employee does not discuss bureau
matters with one's mate, her husband innocently continued the conversation.
Ms. Dickerson and her husband offered to introduce the Edmondses
to people connected to the Turkish embassy in Washington who belonged
to this organization.
"These two people were the top targets of our investigation!" Ms.
Edmonds said of the people the Dickersons proposed to introduce them
"My husband keeps thinking he's talking about promoting business
deals," Ms. Edmonds later said of the encounter. "He has
no idea the man is talking about criminal activities with some semi-legitimate
These are classic "pitch activities" to get somebody to
spy for you, according to a Judiciary Committee staffer who investigated
Ms. Edmonds' claims.
"You'd think the F.B.I. would be jumping out of their
seats about all these red flags," the staffer said.
The targets of that F.B.I. investigation left the country abruptly
in 2002. Later, Ms. Edmonds discovered that Ms. Dickerson had managed
to get hold of translations meant for Ms. Edmonds, forge her signature,
and render the communications useless.
"These were documents directly related to a 9/11 investigation
and suspects, and they had been sent to field agents in at least
two cities." By accident, Ms. Edmonds discovered the breach--up
to 400 pages of translations marked "not pertinent"--and
insisted that those classified translations be sent back so she could
"We discovered some amazing stuff," she remembered.
The first half-dozen translations were transcripts from an F.B.I.
wiretap targeting a Turkish intelligence officer working out of the
Turkish embassy in Washington, D.C. A staff-member of the Judiciary
committee later confirmed to this writer that the intelligence officer
was the target of the wiretap Ms. Dickerson had mistranslated, signing
Ms. Edmonds' name to the printouts. Ms. Edmonds said she found them
to reveal that the officer had spies working for him inside the U.S.
State Department and at the Pentagon--but that information would
not have reached field agents unless Ms. Edmonds had retranslated
them. She only got through about 100 more pages before she was fired.
"I didn't go out and blow the whistle," Ms. Edmonds said.
She said she first reported these breaches both verbally and in writing
to a supervisor, who assured her that the F.B.I. had done a background
check on Ms. Dickerson, and the matter was put to an end.
Her further inquiries to counterintelligence agents raised a small
alarm. Ms. Edmonds was told that Ms. Dickerson hadn't disclosed any
links to the Turkish organization in her employment application.
But nothing happened. Ms. Edmonds, despairing to another superior
in the counterintelligence squad, remembers the agent saying: "I'll
bet you've never worked in government before. We do things differently.
We don't name names, and we usually sweep the dirt under the carpet."
She said another special agent warned: "If you insist on this
investigation, I'll make sure in no time it will turn around and
become an investigation about you."
The F.B.I., contacted with these allegations, would not comment;
Ms. Dickerson could not be reached for comment, but has previously
dismissed Ms. Edmonds' story as "preposterous." The F.B.I.
has also previously said that it did not believe that Ms. Dickerson
acted maliciously, though members of the Judiciary committee have
expressed dissatisfaction with the F.B.I.'s investigation.
Going by the book was not without personal sacrifice for Ms. Edmonds.
She remembered her erstwhile tea companion, Ms. Dickerson, threatening: "Why
would you make such a fuss over translations? You're not even planning
to stay here. Why would you put your life and your family's lives
Ms. Edmonds said that after she reported this threat to Dale Watson,
then executive assistant director of the F.B.I., she learned from
friends in Turkey that plainclothes agents went to her sister's apartment
in Istanbul with an interrogation warrant.
Ms. Edmonds had already brought her sister and mother to Washington
in anticipation of such reprisals by Turkish intelligence. But her
younger sister, a totally apolitical airline employee, hasn't spoken
to her since.
After two years of futile efforts as an F.B.I. whistleblower, Ms.
figured the widows were her last resort. The former translator had
information relevant to the commission that nobody else seemed to
want to hear. Shortly after the Christmas holidays, in the leer of
a nationwide orange alert based on a "sustained level of intelligence
chatter," she contacted Mindy Kleinberg, the only mom whose
telephone number is listed. Kleinberg rallied her cohorts, Kristen
Breitweiser and Patty Casazza (their fourth member, Lori Van Aucken,
was taking a brief "sabbatical"). The three moms jumped
in an S.U.V. and gunned it down the Garden State to meet up with
Ms. Edmonds halfway to D.C. at an anonymous roadside hotel. She gave
them the outlines of her story, and asked "the girls" if
they could get her an audience with the 9/11 commission. Her letter
and follow-up calls to Tom Kean, the chairman, had gone unanswered
for a year. The moms were so disturbed by all the security lapses
she described, they slipped back into the sleepless agitation that
was so familiar from the months after watching on TV while their
husbands were turned to ash by terrorists in the World Trade Center
attack. But they eagerly agreed to help.
Last week, Ms. Edmonds met with a New York attorney, Eric Seiff,
a veteran of both the New York District Attorney's office and the
State Department. He finds her case extraordinary.
"We're familiar with people in big bureaucracies putting job
security over doing the right thing, but not at this dramatic level--putting
job security above national security," said Seiff. He is appalled
at the invocation of State Secrets Privilege "It's the Attorney
General saying to the judiciary, 'Not only don't we answer to Ms.
Edmonds, we don't answer to you."
The last resort, Ms. Edmonds concluded, was the federal 9/11 commission.
Maybe they would live up to their mandate to do a truly independent
investigation of the security lapses that allowed our country to
be invaded by terrorists supported by foreign powers, who have yet
to be exposed or held accountable.
She sent a full report to one of the Democratic commission members.
When this writer asked him about the commission's interest in the
issues raised by Ms. Edmonds' report, he said: "It sounds like
it's too deep in the weeds for us to consider, we're looking at broader
It has not deterred her. And neither snow nor sleet nor mini child
disasters could deter the moms from keeping their dates in Washington
last Friday to do battle for Ms. Edmonds. When the 9/11 commission
seemed close-minded, they met with Judiciary Committee staffers,
echoing Sibel's pleadings that Senator Grassley hold his own hearings.
Senator Grassley had told this writer that his hands were tied, because, "Senator
Hatch is now chairman of the Oversight Committee." The staffers
said they had written to both Mueller and Ashcroft several times,
asking them to come in and talk about Ms. Edmonds' allegations. No
reply. Sibel was surprised to hear them admit, 'Senator Hatch has
been an obstacle on everything we've tried to do.'
Then a brainstorm. What if the Senate Intelligence Committee held
a joint hearing with the Judiciary Committee? Breitweiser enthused, "Great,
we've already talked to Senators Roberts and Rockefeller [co-chairs
of the Senate Intelligence Committee]. We were told by Senator Roberts
that the translation issue remains 'a serious problem.' They said
they would like to hold hearings in February of this year."
The moms' final meeting was their hour-and-a-half private session
at the J. Edgar Hoover Building. Ms. Edmonds was not welcome there.
But Director Mueller, said Breitweiser, seemed genuinely interested
in what the moms had to say. Asked about the Ms. Edmonds case, Mueller
said he had handed it over to the Inspector General's office. Pressed,
he said, "I can't investigate myself." Yes, but, the Moms
nudged, had he looked into problems in the translation department?
Mueller appeared to brush off the matter as anything but important.
"Then, I don't understand why you asked that State Secrets
Privilege be asserted here?" Kleinberg piped up. "If her
case was that important, why isn't it important enough to deserve
For the first time, the director did not look cordial. So Breitweiser
switched back to an earlier subject - his cooperation with a Senate
hearing on the translation issue. "So, Director Mueller, I just
want to get you on the record," said Breitweiser. "If the
Senate asks you to testify, we have your word you'll go?"
The square-jawed chief spook smiled at the girls' grasp of strategy. "You
have my word," they all remember his saying, "if Senator
Hatch invites me to testify, absolutely I will be there."
Now all they have to do is move the immovables. But they've done
it before. And there is one motto shared by the Four Moms from New
Jersey and the translator from Turkey: We're not going away.
You may reach Gail Sheehy via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column ran on page 1 in the 1/26/2004 edition of The New