header login

2006 PEN/Newman's Own First Amendment Award

March 29, 2006

New York, NY, March 29, 2006PEN American Center has named Sibel Edmonds, a translator who was fired from her job at the FBI after complaining of intelligence failures and poor performance in her unit, as the recipient of this year’s prestigious PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award.  Ms. Edmonds will receive the $20,000 prize at PEN’s annual Gala on April 18, 2006 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Shortly after 9/11, Edmonds was hired as an FBI Language Specialist for Turkish, Farsi and Azerbaijani. In her work, Edmonds discovered poorly translated documents relevant to the 9-11 attacks and reported these to her supervisors. She also expressed concerns about a co-worker’s relationship with a foreign intelligence officer, and reported being told to work slowly to give the appearance that her department was overworked, despite the large backlog of documents needing translation. Edmonds followed all appropriate procedures for registering her concerns. However, instead of acting on her information, the FBI fired Edmonds in March 2002, claiming she had “committed security violations and had disrupted the translation unit.”

In June 2002, two U.S. Senators wrote the FBI demanding information on Edmond’s case, noting that many of her allegations had been confirmed by the FBI in unclassified briefings to Congress. The following month, Edmonds filed a lawsuit challenging the FBI’s retaliatory actions, but in July of 2004 Edmonds v. Department of Justice was dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia after Attorney General John Ashcroft invoked “State Secrets Privilege” to prevent any materials that supported her case from becoming public. The Supreme Court has refused to hear her appeal.

In early 2004, an unclassified summary of the Justice Department's Inspector General's report on Edmonds confirmed that many of her claims "were supported, that the FBI did not take them seriously enough, and that her allegations were, in fact, the most significant factor in the FBI's decision to terminate her services." In February of that year, Edmonds testified before the 9/11 Commission about problems at the FBI. Three months later, the Justice Department retroactively classified Edmonds’ briefings to Senators and the 9-11 Commission, as well the information the Senators had cited in their letter to the FBI, and forced the Members of Congress who had information about Edmonds’ case posted on their web sites to remove the documents.

In addition to courageously pursuing her case, Edmonds founded the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition in August 2004. The NSWBC organizes current or former government employees who have been punished for exposing official wrongdoing and advocates for legislation to protect the rights of National Security whistleblowers. 

In announcing the award today in New York, PEN Freedom to Write Program Director Larry Siems praised Edmonds’ commitment to preserving the free flow of information in the United States in a time of growing international isolation and increasing government secrecy. “It is hard to think of a position in public service more valuable to the nation in these turbulent times than a language specialist who is engaged in making important international information accessible to government officials and policymakers,” said Siems. “Sibel Edmonds understood the importance of her position and carried out her work with energy and honor – only to face retaliation and dismissal. Unintimidated, she has fought to inform Congress and the American people on the urgent need for better translation services in areas vital to our national interests. PEN is proud to recognize her for her work as a language specialist, her heroic efforts to improve our country’s translation services, and her current efforts to organize and protect government whistleblowers.”

Siems noted that this year’s PEN/Newman’s Own Award comes amid a spate of news reports of government retaliation against employees who expose wrongdoing or dissent from official policy. “Sibel Edmonds’ Kafkaesque ordeal underscores how easily government powers, especially powers wielded in the name of national security, can be abused to keep the public in the dark about official failings. PEN is deeply troubled by Sibel Edmonds’ story and by the growing number of reports of efforts by the administration to silence government employees.”

This is the 14th anniversary of the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award, which was established by actor Paul Newman and author A. E. Hotchner to honor a U.S. resident who has fought courageously, despite adversity, to safeguard the First Amendment right to freedom of expression as it applies to the written word.  The judges for the 2006 award were author and Princeton University professor K. Anthony Appiah; Robert Corn-Revere, Partner, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP; Nan Graham, Editor-in-Chief of Scribner, a Simon and Schuster Company; Judith Krug, Director, Office for Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association; and acclaimed novelist Roxana Robinson.

Listen to Sibel Edmonds discussing: how to fight state secrets, the gagging of Congress, the truth about whistleblowers, and how to take care of the Constitution.

Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660 ext. 105, lsiems@pen.org