A Whistleblower’s Take On Our Post-Snowden World

I rarely discuss my professional life online so as to allow me to keep my personal opinions just that–personal. The events of the last month or so have been so profound in their impact and implications that I’ve decided to waive that restriction on this occasion. However, the usual caveat applies: the views expressed herein are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any Member of the House of Representatives.

My wife and I were a front-page New York Times story the day before Halloween 1996. The scandal of the day was the Pentagon-CIA cover up of known or potential chemical agent exposures among Desert Storm veterans. It became known in the press as Gulf War Syndrome, a form of short-hand to describe the constellation of debilitating neurologic and other symptoms plaguing roughly one in three of the nearly 700,000 U.S. troops who served in the war. One of our chief contributions to laying bare the true history of the war was discovering the depth of the fraud behind the government’s claims that no Iraqi chemical weapons had been forward deployed into the theater, a fact the CIA would be forced to acknowledge six months after we went public.

I’ve chronicled all of this in two books, most recently in my memoir, but the short version is this: we met with not only hostility and opposition to our allegations inside the Agency, but I was subjected to at least one and possibly several more bogus security investigations in an effort to either intimidate us into silence, find a flimsy excuse for firing us, or both. At every internal briefing we gave on this topic, a CIA Office of General Counsel attorney was in the room–and that same attorney tried to block us from briefing a Presidential advisory commission staff delegation sent to hear our allegations. When it became clear we were getting nowhere internally, I went off the reservation.

In March 1995, I delivered more than 75 classified documents to the Senate Select Committee on Intelliegence (SSCI) that directly supported our assertions, just before the CIA director confirmation hearings for John Deutch, who had been the Pentagon’s public point man in dealing with the GWS controversy. I had a source in Deutch’s office who was adamant that Deutch was lying about the lack of chemical exposures among our troops and that there was an organized effort to screen data that might cause DoD PR problems, an allegation that was verified once the “Wallner memo” surfaced in 1996.

Despite my having put the veritable smoking gun in their hands, the SSCI chairman, the late Senator Arlen Spector, didn’t ask Deutch a single question about our allegations. Shortly after going public, my wife and I got even worse treatment from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) and the House Committee on Armed Services (HASC). The only House members who took our allegations seriously were House Oversight and Government Reform Committee members Chris Shays (R-CT) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). I testified before the National Security subcommittee on December 10, 1996 and some of our core allegations were contained in the subcommittee’s 1997 report. I ultimately made my way to Capitol Hill where I’ve tried to put the lessons from that experience to use:

  1. Claiming that making classified information public will “jeopardize national security” is the last refuge of bureaucrats and politicians with something to hide.

  2. If you challenge the veracity of IC officials’ claims, they will utilize every weapon available to them to silence, intimidate or discredit you.

  3. HPSCI and SSCI, the committees set up to rein in the Intelligence Community (IC) in the wake of the domestic spying scandals that surfaced in the 1970s, have instead become enablers of the very kind of behavior they were created to prevent.

  4. Few in Washington care about IC misconduct unless the public makes them fear the consequences of not doing something about it.

All of this should sound quite familiar by now, and it has happened repeatedly over the last decade with respect to our government’s out-of-control surveillance activities here at home, and to some degree abroad. Whether the whistleblower has been Mark Klein, Thomas Tamm, Thomas Drake, Bill Binney, Kirk Wiebe, Diane Roark, or now, Edward Snowden, the mandarins of the Imperial American National Security State have reacted the same way each time: with denials of wrongdoing, threats against those seeking to expose potential or actual criminal conduct, and in Drake’s case, an actual prosecution. If Snowden returns voluntarily or is mysteriously rendered back to the United States, he will face far worse than Drake or Bradley Manning have to date.

Of course, that is exactly the pattern the Nixon administration demonstrated against Daniel Ellsberg after he leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971. Ellsberg’s allegations created national and international headlines and gave us a monumental Supreme Court decision in the Pentagon Papers case. But as he noted in The Most Dangerous Man In America, Ellsberg’s revelations failed to prevent Nixon’s 1972 landslide or lead to a quicker end to the war in Vietnam. What caused Nixon’s downfall was the over-reach of Watergate, which was in fact triggered by Nixon’s quest to punish the leaker Ellsberg and intimidate into silence others who might previously have been considering emulating him. And it was that over-reach that forced Nixon from office.

The Obama administration has almost perfectly followed the Nixon model, even “improved” on it in terms of the sheer number of anti-whistleblower measures it has taken, including the new and McCarthyite-like “Insider Threat Program“. But like Nixon before him, Obama is over-reaching. De facto forcing down the official jet of another head of state is just the latest example, and that action has caused Bolivia to join Nicaragua and Venezuala in offering Snowden political asylum. Obama’s action against Morales flows from the same impulse that drove Nixon: a belief that presidential prerogative and the totem of “national security” can be used to justify any action, no matter how outrageous.

The fact that more than 40 years separates Ellsberg’s leaking and Snowden’s but that the tactics of the American government remain the same only underscores the other, and most important, lesson I learned from my whistleblowing experience: there is no more powerful force in American politics than the Cult of the Imperial American National Security State, save one: the collective anger of the American people.

In my case, it was adversarial press coverage of the CIA and the Pentagon combined with public anger over the government’s mistreatment of Desert Storm veterans that fueled Rep. Shays’ oversight hearings and ultimately helped bring the truth to light about toxic exposures among the veterans of that war. Also of note was the fact that HASC and the House Committee on Veterans Affairs (HVAC) had failed to conduct proper oversight of the agencies under their purview that were responsible for the GWS cover up. Shays’ actions only underscored a truth imparted to me by former Church Committee counsel Loch Johnson: Member engaagement and committment to oversight is often far more important and useful than the formal, but often coopted, House committee structure. The lesson for me was that Congress and the public would be far better served by a system that ensured that all House and Senate members had access to all IC activities. The so-called “gang of eight” construct only helps the executive branch keep the public in the dark about potential misdeeds or policy blunders.

Today, despite the main stream press’s penchant for repeating Administration talking points on Snowden and his revelations, the American public is already unsettled and concerned by what they’ve learned from Snowden, and that anger is growing, especially among those in Snowden’s age cohort. Those 30 and under believe his revelations have served the public interest by nearly tw0-to-one. More revelations of additional unconstitutional U.S. government surveillance at home and more over-reaching abroad could give us yet another disgraced chief executive leaving office before his time. It did not have to be this way.

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