Saturday, March 27, 2004

Advance knowledge of 9/11? 

Sibel Edmonds, a former translator for the FBI, says detailed information was available in the summer of 2001 regarding a planned Al Qaeda attack in the US involving airplanes. "We should have had orange or red-type of alert in June or July of 2001," Edmonds said. "There was that much information available." According to Tom Flocco, who attended Wednesday's 9/11 commission hearings where Edmonds testified:
Edmonds said "The Senate Judiciary Committee and the 911 Commission have heard me testify for lengthy periods of time (3 hours) about very specific plots, dates, airplanes used as weapons, and specific individuals and activities."
It's hard to know what to make of this, since Edmonds won't go into specifics. Why not? This is the most interesting part:
Edmonds cannot talk in detail about the tapes publicly because she's been under a Justice Department gag order since 2002.
Why the gag order? In 2002, Edmonds went public with accusations of inefficiency and corruption in the FBI's translation department. She claimed her superiors ordered her to translate at a slower pace so the department would receive more funding in the following year's budget, and she accused a colleague of intentionally mistranslating key documents. Even worse, according to Flocco:
FBI translator Sibel Edmonds was offered a substantial raise and a full time job to encourage her not to go public that she had been asked by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to retranslate and adjust the translations of [terrorist] subject intercepts that had been received before September 11, 2001 by the FBI and CIA.
In March of 2002, Edmonds was fired from the FBI. When she contested her firing in a lawsuit, Ashcroft had the suit dismissed:
In October 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to dismiss the Edmonds case, taking the extraordinary step of invoking the rarely used state secrets privilege in order "to protect the foreign policy and national security interests of the United States."
Edmonds' motives are potentially suspect, given her prior history of conflict with the FBI. On the other hand, the gag order issued as a result of this conflict makes it hard to judge her allegations on their merits.

I'm generally skeptical of the theory that the administration had advance knowledge of 9/11. I don't even think the administration is necessarily to blame for intelligence failures leading up to 9/11. Intelligence is a tough business. Intelligence agencies are overwhelmed with leads and clues, most of which are total garbage. It's hard to separate the accurate information from the junk. With an operation as big as 9/11 there were bound to be clues, but sorting them out and getting them communicated to the right people was too hard of a task. It's worth keeping in mind that we don't hear about intelligence successes, only failures. Who knows how many attacks were prevented before this one got through.

With all that said, Edmonds' testimony is just one more piece of evidence that the administration has something to hide. Why slap a gag order on Sibel Edmonds if all she was doing was exposing inefficiency in the FBI's translation unit? Why all the fuss about the 9/11 commission's request to extend its deadline? And for that matter, why are administration officials so wary of testifying before the commission? Condoleezza Rice has refused to testify, and Bush and Cheney have each limited their testimony to one hour. Even that one hour of testimony is only in front of the chairman and vice chairman, rather than the whole commission. And why refuse to grant the commission access to the President's daily intelligence briefs?

If the administration simply missed a few clues about 9/11, that's nothing to be ashamed of, and they should come out and say that's what happened. Their secrecy leaves the impression of something much worse than a simple intelligence failure.

UPDATE: MemoryBlog has more.
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