“… our freedom is under assault — not from terrorists — for they only attack us, not our freedom, and they can never prevail. No, the attacks on our freedom are from within, from our very own government: and unless we recognize these attacks … and stand up, and speak out — no, shout out — against those in government who are attempting to silence the brave few who are warning us, then we are doomed to wake up one sad morning and wonder when and where our freedom died.”
In her 2012 book, Classified Woman, Sibel Edmonds describes inheriting the “love for freedom of speech and of the press, my dedication to the protection of due process, and my endless quest for government held accountable” from her Iranian Azerbaijani father. Her father, a surgeon and hospital administrator, was subjected to interrogation and torture in Iran when he advocated for worker’s rights in the hospital where he was employed. His words and actions helped forge his daughter’s unflinching sense of justice.
As a teenager in Turkey, Edmonds wrote an essay for school in which she criticized Turkey’s censorship laws. Her scared and angry teacher asked her to withdraw the essay, fearing that his student would be jailed and tortured. Edmonds’ father backed his daughter’s decision not to submit a different essay. Within months, Edmonds left for the United States and experienced “love at first sight.” It was a place, she writes, where she could live “with the kind of freedom and rights that existed only in books and in my fantasies.”
Thirteen years later, just three days after the 9/11 attacks, Edmonds received a call from the FBI. She had applied to the agency for an internship in 1997 and been given a battery of tests that probed her language abilities in Turkish, Farsi and Azerbaijani. The FBI, however, had never followed up with her. Now, scrambling to bolster their translation capabilities in the wake of the frightening terrorist attack, the agency reached out to Edmonds. After a moment’s consideration, Edmonds, who was then a full- time student working on degrees in criminal justice and psychology, agreed to come on part-time as a translator for the FBI, feeling compelled to answer this “call to duty.”
Edmonds began work at the FBI on September 20, 2001. She was fired without cause in March of 2002. In her six month stint at the agency, Edmonds witnessed blatant incompetence, personal agendas that compromised national security, and corruption at top levels of the American government. Despite hints and mounting threats from superiors, Edmonds refused to turn a blind eye or walk quietly away from the agency, believing it was her responsibility to expose the wrongdoing she saw.
In her book, she describes how the efforts of many conscientious FBI employees were undermined by bureaucrats protecting their turf and, in one case, by a mole working to hide illegal activity that the FBI itself was investigating actively.
Almost immediately, Edmonds ran into problems with her supervisor, Mike Fenghali. She was driving back to Washington, D.C. from an assignment in Philadelphia when he called, insisting that she turn around and spend one more night away from home, not because there was more work to do, but because the spending had been authorized. Fenghali would tell Edmonds to work more slowly on high-priority projects, believing that she was undermining his ability to request more translators and, thereby, increase his department’s importance and budget. When she refused to slow her pace, he would access her computer and delete files, forcing Edmonds to spend time redoing work she had already completed.
One weekend in December 2001, a recently hired co-worker came with her husband to Edmond’s house. The Turkish co-worker and her American husband proceeded to dangle an offer of espionage work to Edmonds and her husband Mark, suggesting that they would be well compensated for assisting Turkish business groups with their illegal activities in the US. Shortly thereafter, the co-worker began forging Edmonds’ signature on reports, describing recordings that revealed spying and bribery of US officials by Turkish interest groups as Not Pertinent. When Edmonds reported these incidents up the chain, she was rebuffed. Then the co-worker threatened Edmonds and her family, casually mentioning that she knew Edmonds’ sister’s street address in Turkey.
Edmonds’ reports of these events led not to an inquiry into the possible presence of a spy in her department or the mismanagement on the part of her supervisors, but an internal FBI investigation of Edmonds herself. Said one supervisor to Edmonds, “You’ll regret notifying the higher-ups on this. They will not like it, you’ll see. I am warning you for your own good.”
After Edmonds was fired, she sued the FBI for wrongful termination. Despite the support of a pair of senators, Edmonds was harassed, silenced, and prevented from a fair trial. The justice department declared her a “woman with too many state secrets” and refused to allow Edmonds to tell anyone not only what she had learned at the FBI, but what languages she speaks and where she is from. The spy in her department and the woman’s husband were allowed to leave the country. Nothing ever happened to the Department of Defense, the State Department, and Congressional officials whom Edmonds alleged had taken bribes from Turkish interest groups.
Finally, in January of 2005, three years after Edmonds was fired, a government report vindicated the whistleblower, stating that, “The FBI should not discourage employees from raising good-faith allegations of misconduct or mismanagement.”
By that time, however, Edmonds’ life had been changed forever. She had become an activist, founding the National Security Whistleblowers Association and a website called Boiling Frogs Post that covers “select but significant blacked out stories and issues, while defying blind partisanship and propaganda driven mainstream views.”
Another FBI whistleblower, Coleen Rowley (also depicted in the AWTT series), said this about Edmonds:
“What I find so remarkable is Sibel’s persistence in trying every avenue and possible outlet in trying to get the truth out. When going up the chain of command in the executive branch and Inspector General internal mechanisms for investigating fraud, waste, and abuse went nowhere, she sought judicial remedy by filing lawsuits only to be improperly gagged by ‘state secrecy privilege’. Along the way she also sought congressional assistance, testified to the 9-11 Commission, and engaged with various media and other non-governmental organizations… If her book can inspire readers to summon even 1/100th of the determination and resolve she has modeled, there’s hope for us!”
Said Edmonds in an interview,
“This is not about one party, this is not an issue of right wing vs. left wing, this is not an issue of one administration only against another administration. When you really go deep into these cases one-by-one, the people who are misusing and abusing their positions – these US entities, these US officials – it has been going on for awhile and we have been looking the other way.”
Edmonds the woman is like Edmonds the teenage girl who would not take back her essay on censorship in Turkey. She doesn’t back down or look the other way, even when the country that she loved “at first sight” turns on her. Because of her unwavering gaze and steely resolve, we know much more about the frightening shortcomings of the bureaucracy that is intended to protect our rights.
Americans Who Tell the Truth (AWTT) offers a variety of ways to engage with its portraits and portrait subjects. Host an exhibit, use our free lesson plans and educational programs, or engage with a member of the AWTT team or portrait subjects.
AWTT has educational materials and lesson plans that ask students to grapple with truth, justice, and freedom.
AWTT encourages community engagement programs and exhibits accompanied by public events that stimulate dialogue around citizenship, education, and activism.