Editor's note: The artist's essay that follows accompanies the 'online unveiling'—exclusive to Common Dreams—of Shetterly's latest painting in his "Americans Who Tell the Truth" portrait series which present citizens throughout U.S. history who have courageously engaged in the social, environmental, or economic issues of their time. This portrait of FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds* follows one of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden unveiled on these pages in July.
“Senator Humphrey, I been praying about you, and I been thinking about you, and you’re a good man. The only trouble is, you’re afraid to do what you know is right.”
Those words were spoken by Fannie Lou Hamer in Atlantic City in 1964. Hubert Humphrey, the soon-to-be running mate of Lyndon Johnson, had informed Ms. Hamer that her integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation would not be seated at the Democratic Convention, nor would they replace the all-white delegation sent to the convention by the Mississippi Democratic Party.
The reason I quote them here is that the problem she identifies—a good man afraid to do what he knows is right— haunts our history. It haunts it because moral cowardice, euphemistically called political expediency, leads to injustice, denial and corruption.
When I was painting the portrait of the FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds, those words came back to me. 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 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.”
What the FBI didn’t realize was that Sibel was not simply a translator. They had hired a fierce convert to US ideals. In her 2012 book, Classified Woman, Edmonds describes inheriting her “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, had been subjected to interrogation and torture in Iran when he advocated for worker’s rights in the hospital where he was employed.
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 in 1988, 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.”
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 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. Like most whistleblowers, she assumed that when FBI really understood what she was discovering, they would stop it. She reported to what she thought were a few good men, each of them afraid to do what was right. Their choice was to silence her.
As a translator, she was discovering intricate webs of corruption involving money laundering, illegal weapon and drug sales, and illicit trading in military and nuclear technology. The spinners of the webs were (are) fronted as Turkish construction companies operating in the US. In the web, and making huge profits from the deals, were very high ranking US officials in the Congress, State Department and Pentagon. Every time Edmonds was rebuffed she tried harder to get the FBI to pay attention. Once she was fired, she went to court to sue to make her knowledge public and the US courts responded by classifying all of her information as Top Secret. She had been muzzled.
We applaud whistleblowers for their courage to tell truth to power. However, that statement is at the best misleading, at the worst, false. Power is not listening, and it is making sure that others can’t hear. Whistleblowers tell truth about power. And when that truth is about a corruption as deep and far-reaching as what Sibel Edmonds had uncovered, many people don’t even want to know.
When she was given the 2006 PEN Newman First Amendment Award. Edmonds said in her acceptance speech, “… 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.”
It seems that the information that Sibel Edmonds is sounding the alarm about, systemic corruption in all our branches of government, is information that many people, even good people, don’t want to hear. Her message is similar to what William Pepper argued in a Memphis court in 1999, that the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. was carried out by a conspiracy of government and mafia forces; similar to what James Douglass asserts about CIA involvement in the assassination of JFK in his book JFK and the Unspeakable.
Many of us would prefer to ignore this kind of deep criminality on the part of our own government. Why? Is it too dangerous to confront? Irrelevant to the struggles of our everyday lives? Is what this acknowledgement would require of us as citizens too frightening?
We celebrate the lives of people like Dr. King, mourn and grieve in official ceremonies promoted by the government, but refuse to acknowledge that the government itself was involved in the crime of his death even when the evidence is readily available. In a sense then, all of us become accessories after the fact to the crime.
Unfortunately, we all inherit our legacy of denial. Our economic, political, historical and moral lives are too often shaped by failures of accountability. When Obama refused to prosecute the Bush administration for any of its crimes in order to look forward instead of looking back, he enabled this deep criminal denial. He also ensured that we would never be able to look forward because the past would be blocking our view. And in doing so, he also ensures that a republic based on the rule of law becomes little more than propaganda.
We are taught that our separation of powers makes justice inevitable. We are not taught that corrupt collaboration of those powers makes injustice unchallengeable, that “law” is being used to commit crime.
For Sibel Edmonds that situation is untenable. Her courage and tenacity in trying to expose these crimes is, even by whistleblower standards, remarkable. I urge everyone to read her book Classified Woman to find out what we don’t want to know. She’s not afraid to do what she knows is right.
*Poster prints of the Sibel Edmonds portrait are available from the Americans Who Tell the Truth website, the sale of which support the AWTT project's work in schools in Maine, where the artist is based, and around the country.