At Spy Agencies, No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Find illegal activity in the U.S. national security agency you work for. Report it to your superiors. Get rewarded by being demoted or having your security clearance revoked – tantamount to losing your career – while those whose conduct you’ve reported get promoted.

This was the picture painted to a House of Representatives committee last week, as its members heard from five soldiers and civilians who say their livelihoods and reputations have been destroyed or placed in serious jeopardy by their attempts to expose and correct waste, fraud, or abuse in their workplaces.

They are known as "national security whistleblowers." And, unlike whistleblowers in civilian agencies of the U.S. government, they have little legal protection against retaliation.

The House Committee is chaired by Rep. Christopher Shays, a Republican from Connecticut. But, in a rare occurrence in the current contentious political climate in Washington, he is receiving virtually unanimous bipartisan support for efforts to develop legislation to fix the problem.

Shays and his colleagues listened to a litany of retaliations taken against people who have spoken out about abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, illicit federal wiretapping, and other alleged misconduct.

The litany came from current or former employees of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Agency, the Defense Department, and the Energy Department. They told the committee that after they spoke out against alleged government misconduct or criminal activity, they "were retaliated against, in some cases by having their security clearances revoked or their careers ruined."

Specialist Samuel Provance said he was demoted and humiliated after telling a general investigating the Abu Ghraib scandal that senior officers had covered up detainee abuses at Abu Ghraib.

He said he tried to tell the general "things he didn’t want to hear," adding, "Young soldiers were scapegoated while superiors misrepresented what had happened and tried to misdirect attention away from what was really going on." Provance lost his security clearance, was placed under a "gag order," and is now stationed in Germany, where his responsibilities consist of "picking up trash and guard duty."

Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer was among the first to disclose the Pentagon’s "Able Danger" data-mining program. He said he believes that the program identified Mohammed Atta before he became the lead hijacker in the 2001 terrorist attacks, though a Pentagon review found no evidence to support that conclusion. Shaffer’s security clearance was revoked.

Russell Tice, a former intelligence officer at the National Security Agency (NSA), charged that there were "illegalities and unconstitutional activity" in the agency’s so-called special-access programs, but was advised that he could not discuss them even with members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees in closed session. He told the Committee the Defense Department’s harassment of him included spreading rumors that he suffers from manic depression.

Mike German resigned as an FBI agent after reporting that other agents and managers mishandled a major counterterrorism case in 2002 and falsified records. The Justice Department inspector general confirmed German’s allegations, and that he was retaliated against – his security clearance was revoked.

Richard Levernier’s job as a senior Department of Energy nuclear security specialist was to test how well prepared U.S. nuclear weapons sites were to defend against a terrorist attack. He testified that the tests he supervised showed a 50 percent failure rate. When he reported this to his superiors, he was demoted and his security clearance was revoked. He says he was forced into early retirement.

All these witnesses said they tried to follow the chain of command for reporting wrongdoing, but were rebuffed or stonewalled. Some started by going to their immediate supervisors; others went to the inspectors general of their agencies; a few eventually told their stories to congresspersons or to the media.

The defense of whistleblowers comes at a time when top officials in the George W. Bush administration are turning up the pressure to stop leaks of classified information.

Two news reports in recent months, an article in The New York Times on the National Security Agency’s surveillance program and a Washington Post article on secret CIA detention centers, have been referred for criminal investigation.

Sibel Edmonds, founder of the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition (NSWBC), told IPS, "National security employees should not have to sacrifice their careers or financial security in doing what is right. Good employees are being chased out of jobs and fired by those who either are engaged in wrongful behavior or don’t want to hear about."

She added, "A national security employee has to choose between career and conscience when confronted with agency wrongdoing. We need to adopt protections for employees that allow them to be secure in their jobs and encourage them to report waste, fraud, and abuse of power."

Edmonds, arguably the best known of recent national security whistleblowers, began working for the FBI shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, translating top-secret documents pertaining to suspected terrorists. She was fired in the spring of 2002 after reporting concerns about sabotage, intimidation, corruption, and incompetence to superiors.

In October 2002, at the request of FBI Director Robert Mueller, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft imposed a gag order on Edmonds, citing possible damage to diplomatic relations or national security. Edmonds sued and appealed her case all the way to the Supreme Court. But the high court agreed with lower courts that trying her case would compromise "state secrets."

The NSWBC has drafted "model legislation for whistleblowers," which is expected to be introduced in the Senate by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat. Edmonds’ group is also working on a House version of this bill.

At last week’s House hearing, Specialist Provance’s testimony drew extraordinary attention by Committee members, as it came only days after the release by an Australian television station of new photos and videos showing prisoner abuse by the U.S. military at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Investigation of the "Able Danger" data-mining program of the National Security Agency has been championed by a powerful Republican, Rep. Kurt Weldon of Pennsylvania, who wrote a book on the subject.

He claims that Lt. Col. Shaffer reported the program to the staff director of the 9/11 Commission, Dr. Philip Zelikow, when he and other staff members traveled to Afghanistan. Later, however, Commission staff told him they had all the information they required. The program was not mentioned in the 9/11 Commission’s report.

Responding to a question from Congressman Weldon, Shaffer said he is convinced the Defense Department wants details of "Able Danger" buried to avoid embarrassment to defense officials. He also accused the Defense Department of conducting a "smear campaign" against him.

Shaffer was barred from testifying at an earlier Senate hearing on the program, but Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, told that hearing that the Defense Department had found no evidence that a likeness of Mohammed Atta was ever obtained through the program

Noting that current whistleblower protection laws do not cover employees of agencies involved in national security, Rep. Shays said, "Those with whom we trust the nation’s secrets are too often treated like second-class citizens when it comes to asserting their rights to speak truth to power."

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.