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The CIA’s Double Standard Revisited

The Central Intelligence Agency has practiced a double standard for many years.  Former CIA director David Petraeus escaped a jail sentence despite providing eight notebooks of highly classified information, including names of covert operatives, to his biographer-mistress.  Conversely, Reality Winner, a former Air Force linguist, has been in jail for the past year, awaiting sentencing for leaking a classified report about Russian interference in the 2016 elections.  Everyone in the United States is talking about Russian interference in the U.S. elections.

There is nothing new here, however.  Former CIA director John Deutch placed sensitive operational materials on his home computer, which was used to access pornographic sites, but he was pardoned by President Bill Clinton.  Clinton’s national security adviser, Samuel Berger, received a modest fine for stuffing into his pants classified documents from the National Archives.  And Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was not even charged when he kept sensitive documents about the NSA’s massive surveillance at his home.  Conversely, my good friend Tom Drake was charged with violations under the Espionage Act for “mishandling” what turned out to be unclassified information

Now we have recent examples of a double standard that is abetted by the media.  Over the past week, former high-level CIA officials have written opeds for the Washington Post dealing with drone warfare and information warfare. On August 6, Bernard Hudson, the former director of counterterrorism at the CIA, wrote about the “new peril” of weaponized drones in the “hands of non-state actors.”  There is a far greater problem regarding drone warfare, and that is the secretive counterterrorist infrastructure in the United States and elsewhere that sustains endless, borderless wars in places far removed from actual battlefields.  The U.S. practice of “targeted killing”—the extrajudicial killing of suspected terrorists and militants—raises serious moral and legal issues.

The CIA, however, would not allow me, a former CIA officer to deal with such U.S practices.  Material in one of my books dealing with U.S. drone war was redacted.  There have been numerous articles in the mainstream media dealing with drone warfare, but the CIA considers this discussion classified.  The fact that President Barack Obama discussed this issue publicly on many occasions had no impact on CIA’s publications review process.

On August 8, Mike Morell, the former deputy director at the CIA, wrote an oped on the dangers of Russian information warfare against the United States.  Morell is fully knowledgeable of U.S. information warfare against Russia, but never would have received permission from CIA’s Publication Review Board to discuss U.S. activities.  It would be useful to have an understanding of these programs in order to make the case for bilateral dialogue to resolve differences and create ground rules for behavior.  Morell wants to “impose severe costs” on Russia; perhaps it would be better to engage in constructive diplomacy before worsening bilateral relations.

It is noteworthy that these opeds appeared in the Washington Post, whose masthead proclaims that “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”  In fact, the Post is an enabler of such darkness when it allows former intelligence officers to engage in polemical and one-sided accounts of serious problems that deserve a fuller discussion.

Even more serious is the threat to the First Amendment free speech rights when former intelligence officers are not permitted to discuss sensitive matters that are no threat to American national security.  Several years ago, the CIA cleared for publication the memoirs of two senior officers with more than 70 years of professional experience who claimed there was no such thing as torture and abuse.  John Rizzo, a senior career lawyer at the CIA, and Jose Rodriguez, a senior operative who ordered the destruction of the 92 torture tapes, denied that the CIA conducted torture and abuse.

Recently, when I tried to write about the confirmation process for CIA director Gina Haspel, I was prevented from discussing aspects of her career that dealt with the issue of torture and abuse.  Once again, there was no threat to American national security and there was ample documentation from the mainstream media, but the CIA considered the issue to be classified.  One way to address the darkness that beclouds our democracy is to conduct a serious reform of government censorship of its public servants.

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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. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His forthcoming book is American Carnage: Donald Trump’s War on Intelligence” (City Lights Publishers, 2019).  Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.

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