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William Fisher: Whistleblowing Past the Graveyard

Whistleblowing Past the Graveyard

By William Fisher
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Monday 24 April 2006

After the firing of the CIA officer who leaked the secret prisons story to Dana Priest of the Washington Post, one of the retired-general-talking-heads who regularly appears on cable news these days weighed in with advice on the many avenues this whistleblower might have traveled instead of going to the media.

The CIA officer, identified by the Washington Post as one Mary O. McCarthy, could have reported it to her superior. She could have gone to the agency's Inspector General. If neither of these remedies worked, the errant conduct could have been reported to a member of the House or Senate Intelligence Committees, the general said.

It's probably not a bad thing that this general is retired, because he is either delusional or woefully uninformed.

There are scores of former employees of agencies involved in national security who have attempted to change things from the inside, through their superiors or the Inspector General. Predictably, they have gotten absolutely nowhere.

The reason they are former employees is that they've all been fired or made professionally impotent by having their security clearances yanked. Many have also gone to senators and representatives, only to hit the same brick wall.

For all I know, Ms. McCarthy went through all the steps above, but ended up at the Washington Post anyway.

Ironically, Ms. McCarthy was working in the agency's Inspector General's office at the time of her dismissal. Her termination came after CIA Director Porter Goss, with the encouragement and support of the White House, went on a rampage to out those who have recently leaked classified materials to the media.

There is a reason people become whistleblowers. A few months ago a House subcommittee held a televised hearing that explained the reason. It is because employees of agencies that operate in the national security field are not now covered by the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act. Nor any other act. The hearing provided an opportunity for people serving with the FBI, the military and Cabinet departments to tell their harrowing stories of retaliation for their attempts to report unethical or criminal misbehavior.

That Congress held a hearing at all was a huge breakthrough. The subcommittee was considering legislation to provide legal protections for national security whistleblowers. The legislation appears to have gone nowhere as of this date, and similar earlier legislation was defeated on a straight party-line vote.

There was apparently another small problem arising in connection with going to the Congress for help in the secret prisons matter. According to the Washington Post, the chairmen and vice-chairmen of the respective intelligence committees were briefed on the operation in the same way they learned about the NSA domestic surveillance program - on condition they keep the information secret.

So going to Congress in this case would not appear to offer much promise either.

If you're just catching up with the "black sites" prisons story, the CIA set up a network of such secret facilities in the Middle East and in now-democratic countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. To these prisons, the CIA "rendered" the most high-value suspected members of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.

According to the Washington Post, the CIA acted under its covert authority, which can only be authorized by the president. President Bush signed such an authorization - known as a "finding" - six days after the September 11 attacks. It gave the CIA broad authorization to disrupt terrorist activity, including permission to kill, capture and detain members of al Qaeda anywhere in the world.

Dana Priest wrote that the Post could not be certain whether Bush approved a separate finding for the black sites program, but reported that he probably didn't have to because the CIA already had the authority under the September 17th finding.

She wrote that the black sites program "was approved by a small circle of White House and Justice Department lawyers and officials."

In November of 2005, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan was questioned about the Washington Post report. He said: "I am not going into discussing any specific intelligence activities. I would say that the president's most important responsibility is to protect the American people. It's a responsibility he takes very seriously."

I'm sure he does, notwithstanding his recent "instant declassification" and subsequent leak to the media of parts of the National Intelligence Estimate, apparently in an effort to discredit an administration critic.

All governments have, and should be expected to have, secrets. But the attacks of 9/11, the "Global War on Terror," plus President Bush's obsession with secrecy, have guaranteed that this administration currently has more classified documents than any other in American history.

Going public with those documents is never a good option. But, assuming for the moment that the Washington Post was a last, not a first, choice for Ms. McCarthy, what is an employee supposed to do when he or she has knowledge of egregious misconduct in the national security arena and has exhausted all other avenues?

The secret prison program was, in my view, worthy of the term "egregious misconduct."

In the absence of adequate internal protections for national security whistleblowers, they will continue to seek out the media.

Where would we be without Deep Throat?


William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for The Associated Press in Florida. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher for more.

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