Rare for in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer to be whistle­blower

The Morning Call - - TOWN SQUARE - By Steven L. Hall

Ispent 30 years work­ing in the CIA’s Clan­des­tine Ser­vice. Dur­ing those three decades, I was never aware of a whistle­blower any­where inside the CIA or the broader in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity. Why?

There are two rea­sons. The first is be­cause it is a deeply un­com­fort­able, coun­ter­in­tu­itive step for an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer to de­cide to be­come a whistle­blower. The sec­ond is be­cause that’s pre­cisely the way the sys­tem is sup­posed to work. I should never have known of any whistle­blower, be­cause the law is specif­i­cally struc­tured to pro­tect their anonymity.

President Don­ald Trump’s at­tempts to find out who alerted the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity’s in­spec­tor gen­eral about his call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Ze­len­sky — and his con­tin­u­ing at­tacks on that per­son — be­tray how lit­tle Trump un­der­stands or cares about the gov­ern­ment he’s sup­posed to be run­ning.

Just the fact that there is a whistle­blower in the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity makes the sit­u­a­tion ex­tra­or­di­nary. We now know just how ex­tra­or­di­nary: The president of the United States asked a for­eign leader for deroga­tory in­for­ma­tion on a do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal foe, some­thing no fed­eral em­ployee should be able to over­look. It is dif­fi­cult to over­state how great the ret­i­cence of an Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer would be re­gard­ing be­com­ing a whistle­blower, but clearly, this was be­yond the pale.

This is as true for CIA an­a­lysts as it is for CIA case of­fi­cers. We do al­most noth­ing pub­licly, and in­deed, if the iden­tity of a mem­ber of the Clan­des­tine Ser­vice does be­comes pub­lic, it’s usu­ally not a good thing. We are trained to stay away from the news me­dia and the lime­light.

CIA of­fi­cers also un­der­stand that de­spite the pro­tec­tions against reprisals that the whistle­blower statutes pro­vide, blow­ing the whistle poses sig­nif­i­cant risk. Per­haps be­cause CIA of­fi­cers have met with great suc­cess over the years when steal­ing the se­crets of for­eign ad­ver­sar­ial gov­ern­ments, we are un­der­stand­ably skep­ti­cal as to whether our own gov­ern­ment can re­ally keep all its se­crets.

Even in the most jus­ti­fied case of whistle­blow­ing there could still be a chill­ing effect on an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer’s ca­reer. Whistle­blow­ers might be judged by their peers as ei­ther in­dis­creet, or worse, po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated. Nei­ther is a trait an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer wants to be associated with in our world.

The sec­ond rea­son I was never aware of a whistle­blower dur­ing my time at the CIA is be­cause that’s how the sys­tem is sup­posed to work. When a U.S. gov­ern­ment em­ployee sees some­thing he or she sus­pects is il­le­gal or in­ap­pro­pri­ate, they can re­port it for­mally, in a spe­cial pro­tected chan­nel.

The key el­e­ment, of course, is protection against reprisals by more se­nior of­fi­cials in the whistle­blower’s chain of com­mand. There have been some whistle­blow­ers in my world, but I never heard about them at the time.

Even the most se­cret gov­ern­ment ac­tiv­ity is not ex­empt from the whistle­blower statutes, and if we want this par­tic­u­larly pow­er­ful brake on bad be­hav­ior inside the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity to re­main mean­ing­ful, main­tain­ing a whistle­blower’s anonymity re­mains para­mount.

That’s a unique sys­tem, and in plenty of places Trump seems to like, whistle­blow­ers are treated quite dif­fer­ently.

Look at Rus­sia, though you can’t check with Sergey Litvi­nenko, as the Rus­sians killed him with polo­ni­um­laced tea. Or North Korea, where Trump has “fallen in love” with a leader who has those crit­i­cal of him killed us­ing an­ti­air­craft guns. And then there’s Saudi Ara­bia, where those voic­ing skep­ti­cism about the gov­ern­ment are sub­jected to bone saws or, like in a scene out of “The Hand­maid’s Tale,” rit­u­ally hanged in pub­lic.

But Trump and his al­lies and aides ap­pear not to rec­og­nize how im­por­tant are the pro­tec­tions our gov­ern­ment gives to whistle­blow­ers. In­stead, one of his se­nior ad­vis­ers in the White House, Stephen Miller, re­cently stated that due to his ex­ten­sive (three years’ worth) of work in the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, he was sure the CIA whistle­blower was a “deep state op­er­a­tive.” (For the record, an­other thing I never saw dur­ing my 30 years at CIA was any ev­i­dence what­so­ever of any­thing re­sem­bling a deep state or its op­er­a­tives.)

Trump has re­cently pro­claimed that he should have the right to con­front his accuser, ap­par­ently com­pletely miss­ing the point that the rule of law in the United States carves out a spe­cial space for whistle­blow­ers to avoid that very con­fronta­tion.

The whistle­blower statutes con­tem­plate in a very non­par­ti­san way a sit­u­a­tion where a more ju­nior of­fi­cial needs to call to at­ten­tion the unac­cept­able be­hav­ior of his or her bosses. The non­par­ti­san el­e­ment is a crit­i­cal part of the statue, be­cause while our cur­rent president is at least nom­i­nally a Repub­li­can, the next one might be a Demo­crat.

When it comes to whistle­blow­ing, it is in­deed country be­fore party, as it should be.

We can now per­haps bet­ter un­der­stand why Trump is so con­vul­sively wor­ried about whistle­blow­ers. He’s loath to have the de­tails of his con­ver­sa­tions with for­eign lead­ers be made pub­lic, be­cause in these con­ver­sa­tions, he is en­gag­ing in be­hav­iors that are erod­ing Amer­i­can democ­racy. The president does not want us to know the lengths to which he will go to pro­tect not Amer­ica, but his own am­bi­tions.

Steven L. Hall re­tired from the CIA in 2015 after 30 years of run­ning and man­ag­ing Russian op­er­a­tions.


Steven L. Hall, for­mer U.S. CIA chief of Rus­sia op­er­a­tions, at­tends a House Select Com­mit­tee on In­tel­li­gence hear­ing in March that con­cerned 2016 Russian in­ter­fer­ence tac­tics in the U.S. elec­tions.

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