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Law

FBI translator suit dismissed over security issues

From Kevin Bohn
CNN Washington Bureau

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit Tuesday by a former FBI translator because the information needed to prove the case was classified and protected by what is known as the "state secrets privilege."

In the lawsuit, originally filed in July 2002, Sibel Edmonds alleged that her rights under the Privacy Act and her First and Fifth amendment rights had been violated by the government.

Edmonds, who worked as a contract linguist, claimed she was fired after she alerted authorities about purported security and management problems in the bureau's language branch.

The Justice Department and the FBI both argued to the court that her lawsuit should be dismissed because much of the information needed to be considered for it was protected by the "state secrets privilege," which is meant to protect classified national security information from being disclosed.

U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton agreed with the government's position.

"The Court finds that the plaintiff is unable to establish her First Amendment, Fifth Amendment and Privacy Act claims without the disclosure of privileged information, nor would the defendants be able to defend against these claims without the same disclosures ... the plaintiff's case must be dismissed, albeit with great consternation, in the interests of national security," Walton wrote in the opinion.

Edmonds, who worked for the FBI from September 2001 to March 2002, alleged she was fired from the FBI for coming forward with her complaints; a claim officials have privately dismissed.

Edmonds had told the FBI that another translator, who has not been publicly identified, belonged to an organization that was a target of FBI surveillance and had not reported contacts with a foreign government official who was under surveillance.

Edmonds and the co-worker were hired to translate sensitive wiretaps resulting from court-approved government surveillance.

In the lawsuit, Edmonds claimed that the government leaked confidential information about her to several publications, which she says violated her rights under the Privacy Act.

She also alleged that the FBI violated her free speech and due process rights when it fired her, a termination she said was in retaliation for whistleblowing.

Edmonds was seeking monetary damages and re-instatement to a contract job.

In defending the invocation of the state secrets privilege, Attorney General John Ashcroft wrote in a declaration to the court: "Based on my personal consideration of the matter, I have concluded that further disclosure of the information underlying in this case, including the nature of the duties of the plaintiff or the other contract translators at issue in this case reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security interests of the United States."

Edmonds' lawyer, Mark Zaid, said in a statement that the government has gone too far.

"The decision today represents another example of the Executive Branch's abusive nature of using secrecy as a weapon against whistleblowers," Zaid's statement said.

The Justice Department had no reaction to the ruling.

Edmonds has raised controversy on several fronts.

Information she provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee several years ago was recently deemed classified under the state secrets privilege.

And lawyers filing a lawsuit stemming from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks wanted to depose her, but their request was quashed for the same reason.

Edmonds has testified in closed session to the 9/11 commission and has made claims that the FBI possessed some information prior to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon which could have proved helpful in preventing the terrorist strikes.


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