FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The National Security State and the Whistleblower

A major problem in the United States is not there are too many whistleblowers…there are too few.  Where were the whistleblowers when the Central Intelligence Agency was operating secret prisons; conducting torture and abuse;  and kidnapping individuals off the streets in Europe and the Middle East and turning them over to foreign intelligence agencies that conducted torture and abuse?  Where were the whistleblowers when the National Security Agency violated the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution against “unreasonable searches and seizures” and conducted widespread warrantless eavesdropping?  Where were the whistleblowers when the State Department permitted the use of a consulate to serve as a cover for an inadequately protected intelligence platform in Benghazi?  Where were the whistleblowers when the Pentagon was building secret facilities in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula in order to conduct military strikes in countries where the United States was not at war?

President Barack Obama, a Harvard-trained lawyer and former professor of constitutional law, has made it particularly difficult for whistleblowers and has displayed a stunning disregard for the balance of power and the need for oversight of foreign policy decision making.  He has pursued more leak investigations than all previous presidents combined since the passage of the Espionage Act in 1919.  Several press disclosures have been referred to the Justice Department for investigation, and in May 2013 the department subpoenaed two months of records for twenty telephone lines used by Associated Post reporters and editors.  This was the most aggressive federal seizure of media records since the Nixon administration.  Attorney General Eric Holder even departed from First Amendment norms by approving an affidavit for a search warrant that named a Fox News reporter as a possible co-conspirator in violations of the Espionage Act, because the reporter might have received classified information while doing his job.

President Obama has also inexplicably contributed to the need for whistleblowers by weakening the traditional institutions for oversight in the national security process, the Office of the Inspector General.  Inspectors General are not popular institutions within the federal government, but they are essential for keeping the government honest by unearthing fraud, abuse, and other illegal activities.  The Obama administration from the outset focussed on weakening the OIG at the CIA by taking more than a year and a half to replace an outstanding IG, John Helgerson, whose staff had exposed the improprieties linked to extraordinary renditions as well as torture and abuse.

The most outrageous pursuit of a whistleblower was conducted against Thomas Drake, who determined that NSA eavesdroppers were squandering hundreds of millions of dollars on failed programs while ignoring privacy issues.  Drake took his issues to the IG at NSA, the IG at the Pentagon, and to the congressional intelligence committees.  (I am aware of individuals who have contacted congressional staffers with issues that required congressional scrutiny, but were warned that they would not receive a friendly reception from key members of the committee.)  After failing in these efforts, Drake turned to a reporter from the Baltimore Sun.  As a result, Drake faced ten felony charges involving mishandling of classified information and obstruction of justice, which a judge wisely dismissed.

The case of Bradley Manning also demonstrates the mindset of the Obama administration and the mainstream media.  Although Manning has entered a plea of guilty to charges that would give him a 20-year prison sentence, the government is pursuing a charge of aiding the enemy, which would mean a life sentence.  The government has also ignored the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a “speedy and public trial,” with Manning’s trial beginning on June 3, nearly three years after his arrest.  The military handling of Manning, particularly its imposition of unconscionable solitary confinement, has amounted to abuse and is in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”  The scant coverage of the trial in the press is another example of the marginalization of a whistleblower.

The absence of checks and balances in the national security system over the past ten years has virtually assured the abuse of power that has taken place.  In general, Congress has acquiesced in the
questionable actions of both the Bush and Obama administrations since 2001, permitting foreign policy to be the sole preserve of the executive branch and not the shared responsibility of the president and the Congress.  Congressional intelligence committees have become advocates for the intelligence community, particularly the CIA, instead of rigorous watchdogs.  Similarly, the Armed Services committees have been advocates for the Pentagon and have not monitored the abuses of weapon’s acquisitions programs.

Since the Vietnam War, we have observed a system of judicial tolerance, with the Supreme Court only intervening on foreign policy matters to endorse the policies and powers of the president.  This deferential attitude toward the White House has resulted in an absence of judicial scrutiny of illegalities, including warrantless eavesdropping and the destruction of the torture tapes at the CIA that documented torture going beyond methods authorized by the Justice Department.  Ironically, the destroyer of the 92 videotapes of interrogations, Jose Rodriquez, who ignored a White House order not to destroy the tapes and should have faced at least obstruction of justice charges, has published a book sanctioned by the CIA that maligns the OIG for a “holier-than-thou attitude and the prosecutorial ways they routinely treated fellow CIA employees.”

In addition to the failure of Congress and the courts to provide necessary regulation and oversight of the national security process, the mainstream media has been complacent about its watchdog role regarding secret agencies in a democratic arena.   The media require the efforts of contrarians and whistleblowers in order to penetrate the secrecy of the policy and intelligence communities, but typically ignore the reprisals taken against whistleblowers.  Often, they disdain the information provided by whistleblowers that is critical of senior officials and government agencies–preferring to protect their access to these officials.  David Ignatius of the Washington Post falsely claimed that journalists “instinctively side with leakers,” but he was quick to ridicule Edward Snowden, who has exposed NSA’s spying on millions of Americans‘ phone records and the internet activity of hundreds of millions of foreigners.  Ignatius, moreover, has been an apologist for the CIA and has relied on clandestine operatives to present a one-sided picture of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service.  His novel (“Agents of Innocence”) provided a laudatory account of CIA tradecraft, relying on sensitive leaks from a senior operations officer.

My own experience with the mainstream media as a whistleblower is revelatory.  During my congressional testimony in 1991 against the nomination of Robert M. Gates as director of CIA, I provided background information to Elaine Sciolino of the New York Times in order to counter malicious rumors emanating from the White House that was designed to compromise my credibility.  Sciolino initially reported this information accurately, but then tilted to support Gates’ confirmation.  In a conversation several weeks after the confirmation hearings, Sciolino explained that it was becoming obvious that Gates would be confirmed and would be an important source to her as a CIA director.  She added that, as I would return to the National War College as a professor of international relations, I would be of little further use.  Sciolino noted that whistleblowers make good sources only in the short run, while journalists must rely on policymakers for long-term access and should not gratuitously offend them.  This explains the conventional analysis offered by the press corps and its reluctance to challenge official sources.

As a result of the imbalance in the process of foreign policy decision making, we have come full circle from President Woodrow Wilson, who wanted to make the “world safe for democracy,” to Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, who find the world too dangerous to honoring constitutional democracy.  The excesses of the Vietnam War; Watergate; Iran-Contra; and the Global War on Terror have contributed to the creation of a dangerous national security state and a culture of secrecy.  Whistleblowers can help all of us decide whether the ends justify the means regarding these excesses.

Meanwhile, secrecy itself has fostered dangerous ignorance in the United States. The overuse of secrecy limits necessary debate and dialogue on foreign policy and deprives citizens of information on which to make policy and political judgments.  Only a counter-culture of openness and a respect for the balance of power in the conduct of foreign policy can reverse the damage of the past decade.  As long as Congress defers to the president in the conduct of foreign policy; the courts intervene to prevent any challenge to the power of the president in the making of foreign policy; and the media defer to authorized sources, we will need courageous whistleblowers.

Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy.  He is the author of the recently published National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism (City Lights Publishers)and the forthcoming “The Path to Dissent: The Story of a CIA Whistleblower” (City Lights Publisher). Goodman is a former CIA analyst and a professor of international relations at the National War College.

More articles by:

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. His latest book is A Whistleblower at the CIA. (City Lights Publishers, 2017).  Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.

July 19, 2018
Rajai R. Masri
The West’s Potential Symbiotic Contributions to Freeing a Closed Muslim Mind
Jennifer Matsui
The Blue Pill Presidency
Ryan LaMothe
The Moral and Spiritual Bankruptcy of White Evangelicals
Paul Tritschler
Negative Capability: a Force for Change?
Patrick Bond
State of the BRICS Class Struggle: ‘Social Dialogue’ Reform Frustrations
Rev. William Alberts
A Well-Kept United Methodist Church Secret
Raouf Halaby
Joseph Harsch, Robert Fisk, Franklin Lamb: Three of the Very Best
George Ochenski
He Speaks From Experience: Max Baucus on “Squandered Leadership”
Ted Rall
Right Now, It Looks Like Trump Will Win in 2020
David Swanson
The Intelligence Community Is Neither
Andrew Moss
Chaos or Community in Immigration Policy
Kim Scipes
Where Do We Go From Here? How Do We Get There?
July 18, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
Politics and Psychiatry: the Cost of the Trauma Cover-Up
Frank Stricker
The Crummy Good Economy and the New Serfdom
Linda Ford
Red Fawn Fallis and the Felony of Being Attacked by Cops
David Mattson
Entrusting Grizzlies to a Basket of Deplorables?
Stephen F. Eisenman
Want Gun Control? Arm the Left (It Worked Before)
CJ Hopkins
Trump’s Treasonous Traitor Summit or: How Liberals Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the New McCarthyism
Patrick Bond
State of the BRICS Class Struggle: Repression, Austerity and Worker Militancy
Dan Corjescu
The USA and Russia: Two Sides of the Same Criminal Corporate Coin
The Hudson Report
How Argentina Got the Biggest Loan in the History of the IMF
Kenn Orphan
You Call This Treason?
Max Parry
Ukraine’s Anti-Roma Pogroms Ignored as Russia is Blamed for Global Far Right Resurgence
Ed Meek
Acts of Resistance
July 17, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Trump & The Big Bad Bugs
Robert Hunziker
Trump Kills Science, Nature Strikes Back
John Grant
The Politics of Cruelty
Kenneth Surin
Calculated Buffoonery: Trump in the UK
Binoy Kampmark
Helsinki Theatrics: Trump Meets Putin
Patrick Bond
BRICS From Above, Seen Critically From Below
Jim Kavanagh
Fighting Fake Stories: The New Yorker, Israel and Obama
Daniel Falcone
Chomsky on the Trump NATO Ruse
W. T. Whitney
Oil Underground in Neuquén, Argentina – and a New US Military Base There
Doug Rawlings
Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” was Nominated for an Emmy, Does It Deserve It?
Rajan Menon
The United States of Inequality
Thomas Knapp
Have Mueller and Rosenstein Finally Gone Too Far?
Cesar Chelala
An Insatiable Salesman
Dean Baker
Truth, Trump and the Washington Post
Mel Gurtov
Human Rights Trumped
Binoy Kampmark
Putin’s Football Gambit: How the World Cup Paid Off
July 16, 2018
Sheldon Richman
Trump Turns to Gaza as Middle East Deal of the Century Collapses
Charles Pierson
Kirstjen Nielsen Just Wants to Protect You
Brett Wilkins
The Lydda Death March and the Israeli State of Denial
Patrick Cockburn
Trump Knows That the US Can Exercise More Power in a UK Weakened by Brexit
Robert Fisk
The Fisherman of Sarajevo Told Tales Past Wars and Wars to Come
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail